Handling complaints on social media

Complaints are nothing new - they have come in many forms over the years, thick and fast. Some serious, some laughable and some that fall somewhere in between but could cause serious long term harm.

There are complaints that arise in disguise - the Freedom of Information request, the comments in response to another or added to the end of a news story or an innocuous comment that is completely unrelated to a proactive campaign that has just been launched. They are out there and they can catch you out if you are not prepared.

Social media has made these complaints more public. No more the letter that arrives with the threat of telling the media - that threat is now a given and the control is not in the hands of the complainant, nor is it in the hand of the recipient of that complaint. This is a complaint that could go either way dependent upon judgement of those who read it and pick up on it. It's easy to be swayed by public opinion, support or derision with the likelihood that if there is a whiff of a story, the media will make it bigger - or perhaps a key influencer in a community who supports a cause.

All of these variables have risk attached to them, but there is also an opportunity in online complaints being made using social media. Different organisations will have a different approach and this is by no means a 'how-to' but more of a 'have you thought about?' guide.

There are a number of key considerations when taking on the unenviable task of managing online complaints. 


What offline processes are already in place to manage complaints? Online and offline ideally need to be closely aligned but think about what is being said rather than where it is being said. Just because it's social media, it doesn't necessarily mean it should be Corporate Communications that are dealing with it. Certainly, they should be made aware as it could have an impact on media handling, but look at which department the complaint is being made about and be sure they can respond.

A simple process flow that is agreed upon (yes, easier said than done) by all departments is a good start. Asking simple questions and following that in addition to agreeing upon response times is a good start.


Chances are, if you've got people who are already dealing with complaints over the phone and by email or in writing, then they'll know how to deal with a complaint online. Social media is not the kryptonite of communication - it does not strip away the ability to have a conversation with someone or use the same skills you would have in another medium. These people are good at what they do and if they are unsure - support them and give them the training they think they might need. It's grossly unfair to put someone in a position they are not confident in and expect them to deliver. Outline expectations and if necessary, rethink your response strategy and ensure they are equipped to deal with the likes of trolling and online abuse. It's not easy to see online and could still affect them.


So what exactly is a complaint in the eyes of your organisation? You should have some sort of organisational definition and a department to deal with it. I created a traffic light system many years ago to deal with social media based upon complaints that were being received and these are not uncommon but they do need to be tweaked based on context. If you are all working from a simple and understandable system, it's less likely that things would go awry. Take some time out to think about this and get feedback from those who are going to be dealing from the complaints and also those who expect good results on resolutions.

To shift or not to shift?

Sometimes dealing with a complaint online can do you the world of good. It shows you are good at customer service, you've taken the initiative to respond and that you are willing to go the extra mile. It's a double edged-sword however because...

  • There could be a danger of this person inadvertently opening themselves up to fraud by giving out personal details or circumstances that could lead to jigsaw reporting 
  • You could invite more trouble that perhaps would be more delicately dealt with offline
  • You may not know how the person wishes to be dealt with - some would find it offensive that you do not see their complaint as important enough to take to a face to face conversation (although some would argue that if they started the complaint there, then it should finish there)
  • This person could be vulnerable 
  • They might be someone completely different - you'll probably never really know, but it's a consideration that this could be a hoax - at least if it's taken offline you can verify their identity

So what can you do? 

Your homework 

Where has this person come into contact with your organisation before? Is there a record? If so, get them to verify their identification - you really can only do this by politely asking them to contact you (or the appropriate person/department) offline. Be sure to not make it look like a brush off. You're not only protecting them, but you are safeguarding against any possible issues later down the line. Keep a record of everything and be sure to look a bit deeper into things. There's a lot going on that many of us don't know about. The written word is often perceived through the prism of the mood we are in at that time. Don't let perception change the facts.

Appropriate and proportionate response

Have you spent hours, days dealing with a comment online? Crafting a response, agonising over the nuances and then getting approval from five different people? By the time it comes back, you don't recognise it and the meaning has been lost. Then you find out the complaint wasn't even a complaint in the first place. Waste of time, waste of energy and probably a bit demoralising. Or, how about that flippant response made to someone that ends up in being escalated into an internal (or worse), external investigation. It may not have been so extreme in either direction, but think about how appropriate and proportionate your response is. Take a breath, weigh it up and then consider a few different options. It's tempting to knee jerk on social media when things move so quickly. Preparation and taking a breath will save you grief down the line. Stay in control.

Closure or escalation?

Closing down a complaint should really be no different on social media. There are those that are vexatious, time wasting and inappropriate. By showing a robust yet professional response not only are you sending a message to all but you are showing that you are not wasting precious resources on dealing with something that shouldn't be indulged in the first place. Sometimes it takes guts to do it so publicly, but there will be those that are wondering why someone might be treated too delicately. 

Conversely, there will be those that need to be escalated with and dealt with. Make it clear that you are doing this in the most professional way possible. Again, this is about sending a message. Consistently deal with complaints in line with your triage system and you're being very clear about how complaints are dealt with.

The most important thing to remember is that you too are a customer - we all are. It's easy to forget when you work in the public sector that you too are the public. What sort of service would you expect yourself? Live by your own expectations or if that's a stretch, how would you expect someone special to you to be treated? That's often a good yardstick - combine the personal with the operational, professional and legal and you should have a good template for dealing with complaints on social media.

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