The core principle of social media is that it’s social. That means lots of people talking about lots of things. This can be a tremendous boon for your business; today’s consumers have the power to spread word of mouth across the country and across the world with a simple click, status update, or tweet.

But there’s a darker side to social media for your business, as well. Sometimes, a disgruntled former customer will say something negative about your business. In some cases, they’ll do it right on your Facebook page or Twitter feed, so that all of the rest of your fans and followers will see.

Here are some things you can do to handle those negative social media interactions:

  • Apologize. When a fan takes the effort to make a negative statement about your business, it means that something is wrong. That something isn’t always your fault; it could be a simple mistake on the fan’s part, misinformation, or even that they’re just having a bad day. Apologizing lets the fan know that you take his or her feelings seriously, and that you’re not just brushing him or her off. You don’t have to apologize for wrongdoing, and you don’t have to make any statements that might, from a legal perspective, imply liability. You just need to demonstrate some empathy.
  • Try to identify the cause of the problem. This is less important than acknowledging the complaint. If you can’t establish an initial empathetic connection, you’re not going to get very far in identifying the problem itself. Try to discover what need the fan has that’s not being met. Was he or she unhappy with the way a product functioned? Did the product not perform as advertised? Did it not function as expected? You can’t do a whole lot for simple failed expectations or even buyer remorse, but if the product isn’t functioning you can certainly make it right.
  • Walk the fan through a solution. There are many instances where a product isn’t functioning because of user error. Those are opportunities to patiently explain how to operate the product and help the fan achieve their unmet need. In other cases, it’s a matter of assisting him or her through the warranty or refund process.
  • Address others’ concerns as they arise. One thing to remember about your social media interactions is that everyone is watching. That means other customers and other potential customers are paying attention to what you do when a customer’s not happy. Sometimes, other fans will jump in to the discussion, either to echo a complaint or problem or to try to help fix it. When that happens, make sure to acknowledge their contributions.
  • Recognize when a negative comment can’t be addressed. In some rare instances, you might have a competitor show up on your social media stream (often posing as a customer) and make complaints or negative comments. In other cases, it might be a disgruntled employee. Sometimes, it will be a fan that’s simply so devoted to a competitor that they take it upon themselves to disparage your product. Those are the folks you simply can’t reach. If a fan immediately rejects your apology and offer to help, there’s a good chance you’re not going to get anywhere. Thank them for voicing their view, and let them know how to contact you directly if they decide they’d like to have your help.
  • Some negative comments should just be ignored or deleted. Comments that are vulgar and provocative can should very often simply be deleted if possible (or ignored if not). Spending your social media marketing time trying to reason with someone willing to post offensive material isn’t a good use of your time, and won’t score you any points with onlookers, either. Consider adding a comment policy to your Facebook page if this is a recurring problem, otherwise the occasional delete or ignore will keep those comments from appearing too often. Just move on, and focus on the types of social interaction that you can actually use to benefit your business.

Even a negative fan interaction has the potential to be used to help promote your company, and demonstrate your customer service ethic to that fan and to any onlookers. Carefully pick and choose which negative interactions you want to deal with, and make sure you deal with them in a way that’s empathetic, helpful, and transparent for everyone else to see.

This post was written by Sydney De Bear, who is Social Media Support at Vistage International. Vistage business coaching groups help CEOs build successful companies. This executive coaching organization is membership-based only and provides high-level development opportunities for executives.