Though the internet makes it much easier to communicate with customers, the downside is that it’s also much easier for aggrieved customers to complain. Grumbles that they might otherwise voice in person or in a letter or phone call can now appear online, for the world to see – and then the word will spread quickly and potentially damage your reputation.

That makes it even more important to be aware of complaints and respond to them promptly. Resolving problems quickly and fairly can actually be a great marketing tool, as customers will feel that, although they were not happy on one specific occasion, they can trust the practice to behave honourably.

A useful first step is to make it easy for customers to complain offline, to minimise the chances of them taking to social media to express their discontent. Do you have a suggestion box or paper feedback form they can fill out at the surgery, and a named person they can contact by letter or email? Is there a formal dispute resolution procedure? Providing a prominent path for people to give feedback means you can retain some control over the complaints process.

Given that some customers will express their opinions digitally, it’s important to be proactive in terms of monitoring your website and other digital channels of communication. Make someone is responsible for monitoring social media will make sure it doesn’t get neglected. Regularly monitoring all relevant channels for mentions of your business, including search engines as well as social media, will give you a chance to respond to any comments. Don’t forget the customer might not address their complaint directly to you, but to the internet at large, so include hashtag searches when you look at Twitter or Facebook, for example.

Then respond in a timely manner, even if it’s only to say you’ll be investigating and will report back in due course. Late replies just give time for irritations to fester and for the issue to escalate. If aggrieved customers feel they’re being ignored, they can only get more annoyed. With online complaints, response times are especially important. Online, other users can often see how long it to you to respond to any given complaint and can make judgements about your levels of service based on that information.

Remember that acknowledging a problem, and trying to resolve it, doesn’t mean you are admitting fault (though if your practice did, in fact, make a mistake, you should be humble enough to acknowledge it and make any appropriate reparation).

There may be instances when it would not be advisable to engage with angry customers, especially when online. If they show no interest in resolving the issue, it is possible they may just want to vent. You may also come across groups of people talking negatively about your practice. In both instances, you are better off not engaging with them. It can be tempting to defend your practice but this should be avoided. Engaging with people in these scenarios just adds fuel to the fire and draws further attention to their comments.

Ensure that the practice has a procedure for dealing with complaints, whether these are received through the traditional channels of letter and email and phone call, or via digital channels. It could be worth having a checklist to make sure procedures are followed correctly. That said, there’s a danger that a procedure-driven approach becomes formulaic and doesn’t address the issue in a personal enough way. You might think about whether staff have sufficient authority and empowerment to take the initiative in resolving the issue.

Think about how satisfactory treatment and resolution of complaints might be built into the staff’s key performance indicators or targets. That way it’s in the interests of your staff to address problems proactively.

When corresponding with customers, be aware of your ‘tone of voice’ as well as the ‘content’ of your responses, and ensure you address the nub of the particular problem politely. Customers should not feel patronised or that their problem is being trivialised, or that you have failed to understand the specific issue. Neither is it a good idea to respond to aggression with rudeness or sarcasm. In an online setting, it is especially important to consider how your response may look to other users as misunderstandings can be far more common on the web. Where possible, attempt to direct online conversations offline where there is less risk of miscommunication.

One of the most common complaints vets deal with is about bills, mainly due to the surprise factor. Most pet owners know that health care for their pets is not cheap, but without a frame of reference with which to base their expectations, they can still get a nasty shock. Managing the expectations of your clients, especially when it comes to price, can significantly reduce the risk of them feeling wronged.

Finally, when the issue has been addressed and resolved, follow up. Ensure the matter has actually been resolved to the customer’s satisfaction.