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Woe is the company that underplays a customer's concerns, especially in this age of virtual venting. The online world provides an easy, widespread complaint forum that can damage reputations and even lead to a business's demise.

So how best to respond to rants and raves?

The best tactic is educated, quick-responding, front-line employees who deal directly with the public, experts say.

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Consumers are more savvy than ever, and contrary to what most people may think, their top priority isn't always the best price, says Jeff Mowatt, a customer service strategist based in Calgary. "Everyone's walking around with smart phones so they can compare [goods and services]more easily, and have a medium to express themselves."

One way for companies to stand out is customer service, which includes monitoring and responding quickly to cyber-complaints as they are being blogged, Tweeted and posted online, experts say. "You need to be remarkably different than your competitors. The customer is willing to pay a premium for analysis, interpretation and advice," says Mr. Mowatt, who is also a professional speaker.

Among the top customer service mistakes that can punish a business are staffers who try to win an argument with a customer, stick too stringently to policies and not keep their promises.

But while inadequately trained employees can harm a company, people-friendly and caring ones can help transform a critical customer to one who's an "advocate" of the company or organization, stresses Mr. Mowatt, who adds that they should be trained to make on-the-spot decisions in case a supervisor can't be reached.

Catching complaints early gives a company a chance to show how responsive it is and demonstrate problem-solving abilities, writes David Alston, chief marketing officer at New Brunswick-based Radian6, in a guest article on the TopRank marketing blog. "Who knows, impressing customers with great customer service may generate some positive posts about how you resolved the problem."

For instance, Toyota, which monitors and is highly active on Twitter, last summer quickly jumped into crisis-management mode by tweeting in response to customer outrage over major car recalls due to defective gas pedals.

Whether speaking on the phone, through the cyber-universe or in person, here are guidelines that can help address even the most troublesome customer complaints. Mr. Mowatt, author of the books Becoming a Service Icon in 90 Minutes a Month and Influence With Ease, offers his approach to help turn complaining customers into fans:

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Take ownership of the problem: Say "I'm sorry" even if it wasn't personally your fault because you represent your organization, and a customer will associate you with that organization. Then work toward correcting the problem.

Exhibit concern non-verbally. In person, stop what you're doing and focus solely on a customer voicing dissatisfaction. Let the customer see in your face that you are concerned.

Make inquiries about exactly what happened, and let the customer vent. The inquiries should focus on who, what, where and when, but try to avoid asking "why?" so as not to suggest a worker was inept.

Prove you understand the customer's concerns: Listen without interrupting, and repeat and paraphrase the concerns, and tell the customer why you're doing that. For example, say, "I want to make sure I've got this straight," then paraphrase and repeat what the customer said.

Empathize without being patronizing: Even if a customer has no valid reason for feeling frustrated, you can help ease emotions and defuse anger quickly by saying things like, "Sounds like you've had a frustrating experience" or "I'd feel the same way if I were you."

Recover their trust: If a product or service really did fall short of the mark, give a refund or exchange. To help retain the customer, offer something for his or her inconvenience – whether it's a small token like a gift card, or a bigger gesture, such as paying for an installation.

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