One of the most common objections heard from businesses considering social media is that “people will say bad things about our brand.” When hearing this, marketers often politely remind the boss or client that these conversations about the brand – good or bad – are happening on the social web regardless of whether or not you choose to engage. 

Thankfully examples emerge every day on why this is actually a good thing for brands. It may sound like offbeat advise but negative interactions can actually provide exceptional opportunities to build loyalty and trust. While all examples proving this point are helpful, it’s especially powerful when they can happen at the local level. A recent experience at our local food co-op illustrated this perfectly.

This past week while having lunch at New Pioneer Food Co-op, my wife put in a sandwich order that wasn’t fulfilled. As the artisan deli workers (I have been known to call them “sandwich hippies”) can at times take a while at their craft we thought nothing of it. However, after 20 minutes of waiting we went and checked. We learned they had given her sandwich away to someone else, at which point she was offered someone else’s sandwich! After explaining that this would merely continue the cycle of abuse and that we didn’t have time for them to craft another, we left as they noted that they would scrawl down her name and “owe her a sandwich.” The clerk’s demeanor did little to assure us that this scrap of paper would ever become a sandwich.

Grumpy and feeling bad about my hungry wife, I did what many in the situation would do and took the issue to Twitter. While looking inside my lunch and social media habits may not be a huge concern to your business, what followed provides a textbook example of how engaging with an upset customer on social media is supposed to work in three simple steps.

Step 1. Answer the Social Telephone

Below you can see the initial tweet where I @ mentioned the business (@NewPioneer) as well as the subsequent conversation thread joined by my wife, friends, and eventually New Pioneer itself. Genie Maybanks, Customer Service Manager at New Pi, engaged quickly and without a bunch of robotic customer service tweets. Her tone was genuine and even had a dash of humor to it — playing along with some of the jokes in the thread (see how even that little step helps gain trust?). While this could have been a coincidence, social brands can’t leave this to chance and should consider investing in some form of a social media monitoring system. It’s just as critical as having a phone for customer service to answer.

Step 2. Respond with Humility & Humanity

What happened next was important as well. As quickly as she engaged, she took the conversation to a private communication channel (email) where we discussed further. They offered a gift card for our trouble and explained that they would work internally on the service issue. She also engaged in a little bit of flattery, which is good customer service too (not that I’m susceptible to such things). However, the most important ingredient here and throughout the conversation was her apology. Here’s Genie’s response:

Step. 3 Deliver a Swift Resolution

Finally, here’s the hand-written note and gift card we received in the mail just 48 hours after the initial incident. Simply put — they delivered. And in record time. When you have a negative issue, speed can often be the name of the game. A quick response and a speedy resolution are critical in turning negative situations around. The result? How do you think we feel? A couple of human tweets, a kind email, and a swiftly delivered gift have more than made up for a sandwich kerfuffle. And of course, when looking at the big picture, we’ve gotten the message loud and clear that New Pioneer cares. Beyond customer service, this action also becomes a bit of advertising. Since then I’ve told a few people and I’m telling a few more right now.

Again this is a text book example of how brands are supposed to respond to a negative interaction on social media. Ultimately we are a forgiving society. If treated right we usually come around. Over time, Presidents Nixon and Clinton have returned to favorable light despite transgressions as have wayward celebrities and athletes. While people are looking more and more to connect with brands online, they’re really looking for the ones that engage with humility and humanity. Those that do, like New Pioneer Co-Op, will build even more love and respect for their brands.

Remember positive and negative conversations are happening whether or not you choose to engage. What are you going to do?

Photo via Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker