Fact: 97% of clients who are unhappy are not afraid to share it: blogs, posts, tweets, clips and photos, mostly unconfirmed, form split-second liabilities.

Fact: 93% of customers identify online buzz as the most reliable source of information about companies.

Fact: 70% of marketers recognize bad social press as the numero uno threat to customer loyalty.

Question: what’s the best way to react when dissatisfied clients go social?

In order to find answers, let’s take a look at some more facts. When customers voice their discontent socially, they share a story about a personal experience. It’s often a tale from the heart, it’s not a professionally edited PR statement, and its tone of voice is authentic, unpolished, raw even. When reading these stories, other customers get engrossed in the situation and judge what happened from the story-teller’s point of view. More often than not, however, we respond to complaints by stating facts or even contractual agreements. While such a to-the-point response may get the facts right, it often gets the client wrong. Facts are not perceived as an attempt to start a dialogue and they erode client trust. Why not tell your part of the story? By taking a common ground you can captivate the social audience.

In a series of experiments we tested the power of story-telling to restore trust in front of the social media public. First, we had people read a blog in which a couple complained about a bad experience at a hospital. Subsequently, they read an apologetic response by the responsible doctor, framed either as factual (‘marginal deviation from protocol’, ‘87% patient satisfaction rate’) or fictional (‘It was a bad experience, I felt exhausted and empty’). The latter works significantly better in restoring trust and preventing negative word-of-mouth. In a second experiment, we show that expression of empathy (as opposed to vivid story details) is what powers the impact of story-telling. Finally, a third experiment demonstrates that it is more effective to have the person involved respond, rather than an official spokesperson or manager. This is the care even when many switching opportunities are present. So, when unhappy customers go social, make sure you get your fiction right!