By Connie Bensen, the Director of Social Media and Community Strategy of Alterian

The "voice of the customer" is in itself not a new phenomenon. However, the way that customers use their voice has changed considerably over the course of the last ten years with conversations taking place on the ever changing world of online forums and social media. Whilst this does open up the conversation to any individual with an opinion on your business, it also allows businesses to engage individuals and to take steps to rectify problems that may otherwise have gone unnoticed.

It would be nice to think that everything said online about your business came from an objective and constructive standpoint. However there will always be those who use online communities to have a rant and a moan merely for the sake of complaining, or more worryingly those who do so for malicious reasons. However the approach to both should remain constant. By taking the time engage the individual and enquiring as to the nature of their negative experience, you will soon weed out those who are complaining without any genuine basis, and make those with false motives apparent to other online users. However, when it comes to those with genuine grievances, you can be seen to be taking a proactive approach to remedy problems or weaknesses.

More often than not it is a fear of negativity that holds most brands back. It is important to have a social presence and a PR crisis policy in place before something happens. Customers will always have negative comments about your brand. However, you can’t afford to bury your head in the sand. It should instead be seen as an opportunity to:

•Engage with consumers

•Gather feedback in order to improve on customer service and product development

•Delight customers with a direct connection to the brand

•Remedy the problem

A friend of mine recently told me how she went to a restaurant and had a terrible experience. So she went online and gave a review of the restaurant. The restaurant owner received the review information and was able to contact my friend directly. He apologized for her having to endure the poor experience in his restaurant and then invited her back at his expense so she could judge for herself steps he had taken to correct the problems she identified. She accepted his offer and posted a 2nd review based on her return experience as well as her dialogue with the owner. Win-win for all involved. If she hadn't taken time to post her feedback and be constructive, then the owner would have never known until it's almost too late to recover from the impact - better to find out when a small problem, than fester into a grander one.

Businesses should be thinking about how they can create communities within their own websites, where opinions from customers are welcomed and encouraged, even if the feedback is not all roses.

Some useful things to consider:

• Keep an eye on Facebook and especially Twitter (monitor #yourbrandnameFAIL or your brand name and FAIL)

• Add feedback buttons to your site and inside your customer feedback e-mail. Once a month, include a summary of the best and needs to be improved "Top 5" as a "we heard you" feature - excellent way to close the loop.

• Promote customers who help you correct a problem or improve your service. People love recognition more than anything. Go back in the comments or on your website and publically thank and give credit to those who deserve it.