I received a question from a reader, related to the freedom customers have in leaving public feedback about a company. They wanted to know how a business owner should treat derogatory comments when they or their team have the ability to delete them.

Their question would apply to any website or social media profile where you have censorship ability.

Here is their question, paraphrased:

Assuming someone posts a derogatory comment on your company’s page, do you take it down to address it, or do you leave it up with a note that you will contact them if you know how to get in touch?

First, I’m happy to see the question wasn’t a case of simply censoring negative comments. The reader is still willing to address them even if the comments are removed.

But look. There’s no clear cut answer for this one. Here are a few things to consider though when deciding how to deal with negative feedback:

1. Does the person want an actual solution to the problem, or are they bitching just to bitch?

My philosophy is this: complain to your heart’s content as long as there’s a real problem, but be prepared to take credit for your comments.

If your commenter isn’t giving you any option to contact them (no phone number, email address, or even a website link), then they don’t want a personal solution that badly.

Does that mean you should delete anything that’s anonymous? I don’t think so (and definitely not when we’re talking about reviews — deleting any honest review makes you inherently dishonest yourself, and that’s not someone worth doing business with).

That said, there are anonymous comments making reasonable complaints that you should address because they likely affect a broader group of customers. And there are anonymous comments that are unnecessarily heated because someone posted while pissed. There’s a difference.

You don’t need to tolerate abuse from customers, and neither to other visitors to your website or profile.

2. Is the language inappropriate for your site?

What’s considered tolerable language for one audience may be completely inappropriate for another. If you don’t want to allow swearing on your incoming comments, that’s fine. But make that clear up front in a comment policy, so there’s no question as to why something may have been removed.

If you don’t have a comment policy in place, you run a bigger risk of your censorship stifling conversations with other customers. They might worry you’ll delete anything you don’t agree with.

If someone posts a negative comment filled with swearing, and if you deem that inappropriate for your site, my personal preference is to keep the comment, remove the problematic bits, and add a note about what you removed with a link to your comment policy.

3. Is it libelous?

There’s no place for libel. Period. And your company doesn’t have to host it or support it just because you don’t want to be known for overly censoring feedback.

4. Is it really a derogatory comment?

I don’t think it’s acceptable for any company to censor comments just because they don’t agree with what was said. I’d be careful about limiting the scope of what the company considers inappropriate. You don’t want to turn away potentially valuable constructive criticism. Look at it this way: it’s free market research.

There are cases where deleting feedback may be the most appropriate course of action, whether you respond to the commenter privately or not. But remember, there are consequences. If you’re too liberal in using your delete button, you could turn potentially mild situations into heated ones. Your site is not the only place people can go to complain about you. Piss them off even more there instead of trying to help, and you risk even worse feedback being published elsewhere (where you have no ability to censor or even directly respond).

One of the greatest things you can do for your company’s reputation, especially online, is to be responsive to legitimate customer feedback. That doesn’t mean you should respond to everything. Just don’t turn a blind eye by censoring everything that’s critical of your company. That would make you an asshole. And people don’t like doing business with assholes.

Plus, that’s a surefire way to get your company some scathing reviews on consumer reporting sites. And they won’t censor unflattering feedback for you. I have a client of my own in that industry, and I can tell you that even if you tried to sue those sites to get negative reviews removed, you will lose. So don’t push customers to that point to begin with.

When you respect and appreciate your customers, they’re much more likely to respect and appreciate you. Focus on being helpful, and don’t get your panties in a twist every time someone criticizes your company. You don’t have to please everybody (let’s face it; some people are just piss-ants and you’ll never please them). But your goal as a business owner should be to please as many of your customers as possible. And a big part of that is listening to them. So let them speak.

Note: This post was originally published in 2009 and has since been updated.