Humans have always been intrigued by spectator sports. From gladiatorial bouts to the Super Bowl, we eagerly watch and respond to conflict. We get the same thrill from social media, where customer service has taken center stage.

Consider the recent brouhaha United Airlines faced after security officers forcibly removed a passenger from an overbooked plane. The company found itself squarely in the crosshairs — perhaps rightly so — of countless people who wanted to throw social media shade. Instead of responding appropriately to the angry mob, United offered a terse apology without touching on the ugly reality of the situation. Needless to say, the pitchforks and torches didn’t disappear.

You need a viable method to address these concerns without feeding the trolls. Your knee-jerk response is likely defending your company against any criticism. Rather than let these comments get under your skin, view each exchange as a chance to gather insights, build relationships, and gain a competitive advantage.

1. Get your head out of the sand. An ostrich with its head in the sand might feel better about the world, but it’s incredibly vulnerable to predators. Stop looking the other way, and start actively seeking complaints.

Ignoring your haters is an anti-strategy. Customers will hear the words “You mean nothing to us.” Expect even your most ardent supporters to turn their backs on you if you disregard criticism.

Plenty of free and inexpensive tools will allow you to pull together everything people are saying about your brand on social media. Try Mention.net, Hootsuite, and Buffer as starting points. Spend time visiting industry-specific review sites and discussion boards such as Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Spiceworks. Manually review your company’s pages on these sites every day or two, keeping your ear to the ground for any particularly harsh comments or trends.

But don’t assume your complainers will tag you when they grumble. They’re much more likely to talk about you than they are to converse directly with you. Consider it a game of hide-and-seek with a huge potential payoff.

2. Breathe. No, really. It’s not fun to hear how awful people think your business might be, but you have to let it roll off your back. More important, don’t commit the cardinal sins of online customer complaints: ignoring complaints, calling complaints irrelevant, or arguing in public with the hater.

I recently encountered this situation when someone left a one-star review on Amazon of my book “Youtility.” He wrote that I didn’t offer much groundbreaking insight and he regretted purchasing my “underwhelming” book.

I’ll be honest: It hurt. Considering the more than 100 five-star reviews my book has received, I could have easily dismissed his review as the ravings of a madman. Instead, I saw the opportunity to reach out to this customer and try to resolve his complaint. I briefly responded to his thoughts, apologized for his dissatisfaction, and offered to refund his money.

The next time you encounter haters, employ the same tack. Strike an empathetic tone without backing down. “I’m sorry” can defuse a situation faster than you might imagine. You’re showing customers that you’ve heard them, which can open the door for productive discussions.

3. Respond in the same forum. Tempted to answer your customer’s public complaint in a private forum? Think again. Other readers won’t know you’ve extended an olive branch, and they’ll probably assume you’ve ignored the complaint altogether.

Imagine you called your dentist to schedule an appointment, and the office replied with a tweet asking when you’d like to come in. While you’d likely appreciate the response, the sudden shift in medium would be confusing.

Always respond in the same setting where the original complaint was lodged. This promotes transparency and reduces confusion. You don’t have to say a lot, but you should offer a sincere and emotion-free response. It’s fine to redirect the conversation to a private channel, but your first reply should always be in the same venue as the complaint.

Reply only twice. Many online complainers will try to bait you after your initial reply. They’ll treat you like a punching bag, hitting you with defamatory comments and waiting for you to fight back. If you can’t address their concerns in two exchanges, it’s probably best to cut your losses.

4. Always take responsibility. Public media channels aren’t designed for fair fights. You sometimes need to take one on the chin and claim responsibility — even if it wasn’t your fault. You’ll be doing this for the complainant, as well as for the countless spectators watching how you handle the situation.

After saying you’re sorry, your goal should become moving the conversation to the next stage: private resolution. Contact the customer if you know him, or use private social media functions to contact him out of the public eye. This lets you reach a resolution without making the nitty-gritty details public.

While you won’t win over every online hater — some people just want to watch the world burn — you can defuse most social media kerfuffles with a little empathy and sincerity. United might have soothed the social media mob had it owned up to its mistakes, with its story serving as a heroic saga of overcoming online criticism. Instead, it’s a cautionary tale that should spur every business owner to develop a complaint response strategy.hater — some people just want to watch the world burn — you can defuse most social media kerfuffles with a little empathy and sincerity. United might have soothed the social media mob had it owned up to its mistakes, with its story serving as a heroic saga of overcoming online criticism. Instead, it’s a cautionary tale that should spur every business owner to develop a complaint response strategy.

Author's Bio: 

Jay Baer is a renowned business strategist, keynote speaker, and New York Times bestselling author. He is the founder of Convince & Convert , a strategy consulting firm that helps prominent companies gain and keep more customers through the smart intersection of technology, social media and customer service. His latest book, “ Hug Your Haters ,” outlines how to embrace complaints, put haters to work for your company and turn bad news into good.