No matter the point in your company's social journey, missteps are bound to occur. For better or worse, customers now have an alluring outlet for their opinions, allowing for the dissemination of personal reflections at lightning speed. While companies aim to foster social brand advocates, they must also prepare for those instances when dissatisfaction becomes dissent.

Because social media still needs time to mature, companies find their youthful strategies to be exploratory, putting the emphasis on establishing their footing within the social world. Yet, while companies grapple with how to leverage social media from a business standpoint, consumers use the channel to connect with hundreds and thousands of friends and followers, voicing their positive remarks and venting their frustrations in a public forum. And when things take a turn for the negative, complaints can spiral out of control in mere moments.

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For many companies, social media disasters can be devastating, but for those who approach the given issues with careful forethought and a level head, catastrophe can create opportunity. The customer's social journey allows companies numerous chances to cultivate and reinforce the very relationship that could lessen the severity of issues in the future. The following tips provide a social roadmap for dodging the speed bumps and patching the potholes that pop up along the way.

Understand the Troubles That Trigger Disaster 

Ignorance isn't bliss. Often times, the biggest problems arise when companies outwardly disregard the conversations that are taking place inside and outside of their organizations. Neglecting what customers are saying essentially allows one negative comment to take on the viral qualities that threaten company-wide reputations.

"The snowball effect plays a factor in that one negative comment can get re-tweeted many times over, with each individual sending that negative tweet to his or her followers, exponentially increasing the reach of a single comment," says Sarah Carter, general manager, social business, at Actiance. Companies may decide not to listen to their audience, but those followers that sympathize have the power to escalate issues right into the public eye.

Carter also highlights the importance of conveying authenticity during customer service interactions, noting how robotic or canned service responses give customers the impression that companies lack concern and care for the issue at hand. Complaints escalate because they hit a nerve with other customers in similar circumstances. However, if companies fail to listen to what's going wrong as problems happen, customers across the board will continue to shout the message until someone in a position of power hears them.

Prepare Your Internal Advocates

Because social media's nature is unlike any other channel in history, companies must prepare from the inside out.

"Where companies may have once had more control over conversations because they were often one way, the mobile proliferation of the Internet, combined with the virality of social media has created an anytime, anywhere feed of information that reaches all audiences immediately," emphasizes Mat Rider, communications manager, social media at DocuSign. "Social media has further evolved communications by creating open dialogue between brands and all constituents."

But, when social media disaster strikes, brands rarely have time to think, let alone plan. Taking social's "anytime, anywhere" nature into account, companies must establish a social strategy that acts in conjunction with their overarching business plan. Social media training for every employee also has its benefits, as it provides a universal basis for the brand's social objectives, while cultivating brand ambassadors internally.

Remain Honest and Authentic at Every Stage of the Customer Journey

Frank Eliason, author of @YourService, knows that the best way to ease tensions in the event of social uproar is to provide a consistently optimal customer experience at every touchpoint. Those brands that maintain integrity throughout the customer lifecycle develop a reputation that brings an element of trust to an otherwise frustrating situation, thereby encouraging patience with those customers affected by the issue at hand. 

However, because we live in a 24/7 society where people expect an immediate response, many feel the need to provide customers with an answer right away. Eliason suggests companies disregard this need for speed by acknowledging the problem, even if there's no instant answer. By taking the honest, humanized approach, companies provide customers with the peace of mind that their issue is being resolved, while also building trust by dedicating their time to finding the best, most effective resolution.

Comprehend the Power of Social Media

While social may facilitate new connections, brands must be aware of how they interact and present themselves to the social sphere. When customers take to social to share their problem, companies know they must do damage control, but they must also be aware of the example they set. As Eliason highlights, if customers know that one angry tweet can solve their issue, others are going to follow the same approach to get what they want. Companies unintentionally set a precedent that may be hard to maintain. 

Learn to Say You're Sorry

Dave Carroll, author of United Breaks Guitars, believes apologizing can be the least expensive, most meaningful disaster recovery tool available. But, when United Airlines neglected to admit its mistake and take responsibility for his broken guitar, Carroll took to social media—particularly YouTube—to share his story. Carroll emphasizes that companies must recognize their connection with the customer, for these issues do not have two sides, but only one. Brands must start with the underlying belief that they are there to please everyone.

"If and when you are faced with a negative experience, you're given a golden opportunity to provide world-class customer service by showing that you are actively listening to your customers while demonstrating that you are taking their feedback and incorporating it into your product and service updates," says Rider. When done effectively, brands can turn negative comments into positive experiences by showing customers they value opinions, thereby building long-lasting, one-on-one relationships.