How to deal with trolls – a small business guide

How to deal with trolls – a small business guide

Ed Palmer

Ed Palmer
25th March 2019

It’s a nightmare scenario:

You’ve had a customer complaint online – and they just won’t give up.

They’re ranting and raving about your business on their social accounts. They’re trashing you on review sites, and they’re leaving their odorous comments on every blog post you upload.

In short: your business is being trolled.

So what are you going to do about it?

‘Is this really happening?’

The first thing you need to understand is a simple fact – and it’s best summed up in the immortal poetry of Taylor Swift:

Haters gonna hate.

There are people out there who thrive on confrontation. They want to push buttons, poke wounds, and grind gears.

And the more fuss they make, the more satisfied they become.

On the other end of the troll-scale, there are genuine complainants who simply react out of proportion when they feel wronged.

But in both cases, there’s the potential for serious harm to your business and its reputation. Here are a few worrying stats:

So if you think your business is immune to excessive complaints and trolling (and the inevitable negative consequences), think again:

It happens all the time.

‘Why are they doing this?’

There are lots of different reasons for someone to keep badgering your business online.

They could be someone who:

  • Hasn’t been given the discount or refund they think they deserve
  • Feels that they’ve had poor customer service
  • Disagrees with your business’s policies (such as policies about bringing children to your business late at night, or returning faulty products beyond a certain amount of time)
  • Or has had some kind of confrontation or argument with you or one of your staff (justified or otherwise)

Their complaints could be perfectly valid or entirely fabricated. And in some rare cases, they might have been put up to it by one of your competitors.

But whatever their reasons, the end result is the same: they’re making your business look bad, and they’re probably costing you money.

‘What are we going to do?’

The first thing to decide is an important one:

Should you do anything at all?

And I’d argue that in just about every case, the answer is ‘yes’.

An online complaint (or a vicious berating) without a response from you can automatically make you look like you’re in the wrong – or worse, that you don’t care at all.

In some situations, you might be tempted to ignore the problem and move on.

Perhaps the complaint is just a single tweet from someone with only ten followers – and it looks like the damage would be negligible.

But for all you know, someone searching for your brand name will find that tweet weeks or months later. And if they don’t see a response from you, they’ll assume the complaint was justified.

If you don’t have lots of happy customers posting about their positive experiences on Twitter, that single nasty tweet might be the only thing that appears when people start looking for your business.

Luckily for you, I’ve got a step-by-step guide to show you exactly what to do when you find out someone is trolling your business – both for genuine complaints and for those who just want to cause mayhem:

‘How should we respond to a real complaint?’

1. Act quickly

I know it’s tough to stay on top of every message and mention your business gets online.

But your customers don’t.

According to a survey from The Social Habit, 42% of people who look for customer support online expect a response within 60 minutes.

That’s high demand – but you ought to do your best to try and meet it.

As well as keeping the person complaining happy, a quick response means leaving less time for the discussion to develop, with other online users pitching in and riling up the complainant.

So as soon as you discover a complaint online, start planning your response and get ready to respond as soon as you can.

2. Take ownership and apologise publicly

No matter how exaggerated or minuscule the complaint seems, always start things off with a friendly apology – and try to show a little empathy.

This first point of contact might be the only thing people read for weeks and months to come after the complaint is posted. That means you need to show that you understand their frustration and that you’re trying to be as helpful as possible in getting to a resolution.

And remember: people can smell a scripted apology a mile off. So wherever you can, take a personal approach by:

  • Using the complainant’s name
  • Explicitly referring to the specific issue they have
  • And using the same positive, conversational tone of voice you’d use face-to-face with a customer in real life

Here’s an example of a response to a customer complaint that’s clearly a copy-and-paste job:

Screenshot of tweet

It’s not a bad response. But you could imagine that reply being a stock-comment that’s used for just about any kind of complaint – and it shows.

Now compare that response with this one from Amazon:

Screenshot of Amazon customer service tweet

The difference is night and day. 

There’s an actual apology, they’ve addressed the customer by name, and they’ve mentioned the type of problem he was having.

And they’ve done it all in a positive, upbeat – and human – tone of voice.

3. Try to move the conversation to somewhere private

It’s important to respond publicly at the beginning. And it’s absolutely fine to follow up with one or two more posts in a public setting.

But as soon as you can – and as gently as you can – try to get the complainant to start messaging you privately (either through email or through direct messages on a social media or review platform).

You want to minimise the scale of any public negativity surrounding your brand name. And if the person complaining decides to get angry and more verbose with their complaint, it’s better if they do it in your private inbox.

4. Keep calm, and keep up appearances

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a private conversation will stay private.

People love to take screenshots of private messages and post them online – and you don’t want to end up with online negativity like this:

Screenshot of customer service tweet

So always treat your private messages as if they were public: be kind and courteous, respond quickly, and keep your customer-service hat on at all times.

5. Offer some compensation, and follow up publicly

Once you’ve (hopefully) resolved the issue, it’s often a good idea to suggest a freebie to keep the person happy.

(And if this part happens publicly, even better!)

It could be a discount, a voucher, or simply a link to an alternative product or service that could help them out.

These kinds of helpful offers help to build trust and make customers feel valued – but they can also help to improve the chance that the person complaining will say something positive about your business in the future.

And finally: always follow up with a reply to the original complaint to publicly check that the person is happy and the issue has been resolved. That way, if anyone searching finds the complaint in the future, it’s completely clear that the problem was fixed and that the complainant is happy.

‘But what if they don’t give up?’

Real customers with real complaints are usually looking for one thing: a solution.

But if there’s someone complaining online who’s not interested in your apologies or your solutions, things can get tough.

You’re moving into pure-troll territory.

There’s no easy solution to help you deal with someone who just wants to vent a stream of negativity without the chance for a resolution.

But there are a few different approaches you can try:

1. Respond with facts, and nothing more

Most trolls are just looking for a reaction – and that means they’ll often exaggerate or fabricate dramatic claims to get one.

So if you find yourself faced with a stream of untruths about your brand, it’s worth responding with the truth.

But here’s the important part:

You’re not responding to correct and educate the troll.

You’re responding to get the truth out to all of your other customers and visitors.

A few years ago, a YouTube video showing how easily the new iPhone could be bent out of shape went viral.

And in the aftermath of that video, even the mighty Apple started to get trolled online:

Tweet about Apple iPhones

So what did Apple do in response?

They addressed the accusations directly with honesty and facts: bending iPhones were actually ‘extremely rare’, and out of 10 million sales, only nine people had actually complained about a bend in their iPhone.

They didn’t get defensive. They didn’t let the trolling provoke them.

They simply responded to the exaggerations with hard facts – and a humble admission that there was a rare problem.

2. Kill them with kindness (or humour)

We know that trolls are provocative.

They want a reaction. They want you to get cagey, embarrassed and defensive.

But if you can move past your initial gut reaction, it’s easy to defuse the situation.

Just like with any other kind of bully in real life, a little kindness (or a well-placed bit of silliness) can completely nullify their efforts to cause embarrassment.

Like this cheeky response from Wendy’s (a fast-food chain):

Tweet from food chain Wendy's

Or this podcast owner, who recently went viral by posting his method of responding with kindness to an abusive troll on Twitter:

screenshot of response from podcast owner to online troll

3. Remove them entirely

If you’re getting a lot of flak on a platform that you control (like your own website’s blog), you could try simply deleting the comments or banning the users.

Most blogs or online platforms will have an option that lets you approve every comment before it goes public – which means you won’t have to put up with the trolls at all.

But this method has its downsides.

Deleting nasty messages and approving every comment could quickly become a time-consuming headache. And you’ll probably be tempted at some point to start removing genuine, justified complaints – which won’t look good for your reputation if people realise you’re doing it.

So this final method should really only be a last resort.

If the truth isn’t helping and you’re all out of kindness, just take the troll out of the equation altogether.

I hope you found this guide helpful. And I honestly hope you’ll never be in a situation where you’ll need it.

But if you want to learn more about how to present your best face to the public, you can take a look through some of these other helpful guides in Branding and Culture.