Social media pages are quickly becoming essential for every business in the UK, particularly consumer-facing companies.

Many builders' merchants still lack a social media presence (find out how to build one here), yet a well-crafted Facebook page or Twitter account can be a significant boon to your business.

However, for every social media success story there are tales of social media gone wrong – PR disasters where negative publicity consumed businesses and left them struggling to recover.

Dealing with complaints on social media is a particularly difficult area. One misstep and the customer will be sharing their negative experience with their friends and family, who will pass the story on to their network.

What not to do

First, an example from the US.

Introducing: Amy's Baking Company, a bistro in Arizona. The company appeared on Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares in 2013, and Gordon Ramsay gave up on turning their fortunes around because the owners were "incapable of listening". After the episode aired, Amy's Baking Company responded with a Facebook post asking for support "during this difficult period". Naturally, the internet didn't relent – and then the restaurant owners had a complete public meltdown on Facebook, insulting everyone and turning their Facebook wall into a series of incoherent, abusive rants that continued to go viral. They later claimed their Facebook account had been hacked. The restaurant shut down in 2015.

This social media disaster wasn't directly caused by the TV show, but by the company's shocking response. These rules should help you to avoid such a catastrophe when you next have to respond to social media complaints.

Five social media rules to follow

1.       Never respond while angry. If you're angry about a specific complaint, cool off before responding. Knee-jerk reactions are more likely to be poorly-worded. Form a more diplomatic response later.

2.       Never ignore complaints. By leaving a complaint unanswered, you give an extremely poor impression. Customers come to your social media pages to see how you interact with customers. If you aren't willing to listen to feedback or act on complaints, this doesn’t reflect well on your business.

3.       Never delete complaints. Deleting complaints may seem the simplest form of reputation control, but if the user discovers what you've been up to, it's likely they'll redouble their efforts to get their complaint noticed.

4.       Always apologise. Even if there's a perfectly valid excuse for your company being unable to give adequate service to a customer who's complained on social media, provide a full apology. A heartfelt 'sorry' can be all it takes to diffuse a situation.

5.       Go the extra mile. Once you've apologised, offer an email address or phone number. If the customer gets in touch, apologise again and offer a discount or explain how you've made changes so that the situation won't happen again. If you handle the situation carefully, you might even turn the disgruntled customer into a brand advocate.

Aside from these rules, it's also important to remember that a day might as well be a year in social media terms. Consumers use social media to contact companies because they expect a swift response. Set up email notifications so that you're immediately aware of any mentions or comments on social media.

Looking for more digital marketing advice? Take a look at our beginner's guide to digital marketing for merchantsand stay tuned to the Trader blog.