Many small businesses we talk to feel very scared of social media. They know that they need to be involved, but very often they’ve witnessed other businesses suffer at the hands of a social media storm. It seems like online, anyone can say anything about you and there’s nothing you can do except sit on your hands and take it. It need not be like that.

Social media can be a very democratic place if everyone is sensible. It’s when customers become angry or frustrated that it can go wrong. Or when people think it’s OK to have a rant without any recourse or comeback on your part. What’s known as the ‘keyboard hero’. There are simple, common sense ways to deal with complaints in any business and social media is no different to any other. Here are several important things to consider if you’re just starting out on social media or you have an issue with negative comments.

1. It won’t go away. Facebook, Twitter, Trip Advisor and enthusiasts forums are here to stay. They’re not going away and it’s the world we live in today. Just ignoring this is not a solution

2. People are actually reasonable. It’s just that their tone online can often sound angry and brutal. SHOUTING IN CAPITALS is something that frustrated customers often do. Don’t respond in the same manner, you’re just fuelling the fire and don’t forget, this is a public arena. So what should you do?

3. First things to do with negative feedback. Respond. If you have the customers contact details, contact them directly. Very often their tone online is more strident than when talked to privately. Try and resolve your differences. Has the customer been back to you to complain or have they just jumped online? Very often, people’s first course of action is to shout out online rather than contact you. Therefore you need to be monitoring the chatter and checking for signs.

4. Don’t wash your dirty linen in public. Stop the social media discussions in the public arena and take things offline. Keyboards and text messages have an unhappy knack of getting emotions wrong. The reader cannot see your face or hear your tone of voice, so they have to make the best guess they can. This leads to mistakes. Try and have a simple discussion by phone, it’s amazing how things can be misinterpreted online.

5. If you must respond publicly, take a moment to reflect. Some channels, such as Trip Advisor, make it difficult to take a discussion offline. A negative review is there, so you need to deal with it. Chances are, when you read this criticism you’ll be hurt and want to get right back at them. Big mistake. However angry you may feel, walk away from your keyboard and calm down. Then read the comment again and try and see the viewpoint. If the review is completely unreasonable, craft your reply to highlight this in a measured, reasonable way. Read it once more before adding the reply. We use Evernote to draft blog posts, features and also to deal with this type of issue for some clients. Use whatever method suits you, but take your time and be reasoned and calm. The chances are that the angry reviewer will then be exposed as the troll that they are.

6. If you did screw up, it’s OK to say you’re sorry. We all make mistakes and have bad days. We didn’t set out to upset out customers that morning, but sometimes things just go wrong. In fact, it’s OK to say sorry. Saying you’re sorry and offering an explanation online shows a degree of humility and maturity that is often lacking and above all, it shows you care. If you can also make an offer to put things right, then that’s good too. Be careful not to hide behind your excuses and make it a genuine explanation and most people will actually give you a seond chance.

Above all, saying nothing is not an option. Your silence will simply make it appear that you’re guilty as charged, or worse still that you just don’t care. Your social media skills are actually little different to your normal people skills in business. Remember the real person behind the words on the screen and you won’t go far wrong.