Turning a complainer into a campaigner can protect and even enhance an organisation’s reputation.

Handling negative feedback and complaints effectively has become increasingly important as more consumers share opinions online and off.

Even though customers are increasingly happy to comment online, research indicates that around 96 per cent of them won’t complain to the provider directly when they feel let down.

Instead, they will use “word-of-mouse” to tell dozens of people they know face-to-face and via Facebook, Twitter and other social media and encourage them to share the information widely.

Few people complain for the sake of it, and usually they complain because they are unhappy at being let down in some way. They want to be personally recompensed or acknowledged for this, and/or want to reduce the chance of someone else having a similar experience in future.

As for the organisation concerned, anyone who spends time and effort complaining should be welcomed with open arms.

Treat these people like pure gold — they give you an opportunity to identify gaps that need addressing and improve service for others further down the road.

Unfortunately, though, many providers’ default reaction is to become defensive or combative — or both — when a complaint is raised, which usually makes the complainant more likely to dig his heels in and the whole incident turn ugly.

Organisations should heed the following advice to turn a complainer into a campaigner:

* Make the complaint a priority in terms of time and focus. Treat it seriously and be present and open to the feedback. Even if you feel the complaint is trivial, perception is reality and the person making the complaint will feel disrespected if you trivialise something he feels strongly about.

* Listen objectively and stay calm. Avoid being defensive and don’t apportion blame. Let the complainant say his piece without interruption as far as possible before butting in and trying to close him down or give your side of the story. Allowing him to let off steam in full will mean he is more likely to want to hear your response when it does come.

* Ensure key issues are identified and there’s no misunderstanding between you as to what’s in dispute. Create the time and space needed to get to the crux of the complaint and don’t be sidelined by additional irritants that may not be within your control to solve.

* Provide one or more immediate and longer-term solutions, and gain the complainant’s agreement regarding a possible final resolution. If you only provide one option as the final solution, you run the risk of him rejecting it out of hand and feeling excluded and unheard. Involving him in the solution-finding process is more likely to result in a solution he will willingly accept and be genuinely happy with.

* Follow up. Keep the complainant informed and stay in touch until he is happy his complaint has been resolved effectively.

* Encourage and demonstrate open and transparent communication. Don’t wait until the “perfect” time or until you have a perfectly crafted message. Telling things how they are — sensitively and appropriately — in an open and transparent way will create rapport and show the complainant that you are human, dealing with challenges that will inevitably come up in trying to put things right.

* Keep your word. Over-promising and under-delivering will only increase doubt and is an invitation for more complaints. Make sure you can deliver on whatever it is you promise before you commit to it.

* Treat people fairly and walk the talk. Nothing breaches trust more quickly than saying one thing but doing another. Hold yourself, and your team, accountable to high standards and act accordingly. Applying the rules to some but not others will breed discontent and create a climate of distrust.

Remember, it is not what happens but how you handle it that counts. Complainants can become your biggest advocates and campaigners if you make them feel valued and valuable, and welcome the complaint as an opportunity to improve.