Ah, complaints! Years ago, clients might file complaints with a state or federal regulator. You’d be called to account, but if you weren’t at fault, hopefully the regulator would dismiss it. If you were, you’d either make good or enter mediation (or court).

Now I’m not minimizing the significance of old-fashioned complaints. But boy, today’s complaint landscape is so … Web 2.0! Thanks to the Internet, even minor complaints have the potential to become complaints from you-know-where. That’s because social-media complaint sites are all the rage. Problem is, once your name gets published on such a site, your reputation takes a big hit, permanently. And even if you publish a rebuttal, people will assume you’re just lying to protect yourself.

Think I’m exaggerating? Check out these sites: www.complaints.com, www.planetfeedback.com, www.ripoffreport.com, and www.thesqueakywheel.com. Some of the complainants seem like reasonable people. They state their problems rationally, provide evidence and only want a fair outcome. Others seem a bit unhinged, inflammatory and, well, out for blood (yours!).

It gets worse. One site allows people to post complaints with your photo. Then the site automatically forwards the complaint to Google and sends e-mail copies to everyone. How’s that for viral marketing?

Scary? You bet. But don’t let fear paralyze you. Act now to prevent complaints. Here are some guidelines to get you started:

  • Do everything by the book. Make sure your marketing (especially seminar) practices are locked down tight. Know your administrative procedures cold, especially regarding filling out forms and dealing with client funds.
  • Do business with professionalism. Part of this depends on you knowing your stuff. The other part depends on you acting with integrity. If you’re not sure what that means, review the National Ethics Bureau ethics pledge (ethicscheck.com).
  • Meet and hopefully exceed client expectations. You can do a great job for your clients, but if they’re expecting something more, watch out. So always be sure to set client expectations as needed.
  • Become “the great communicator.” Reach out to your clients frequently. Ask them how they’re feeling about their product or plan–and about you! If they’re not happy, find out why and fix the problem immediately.
  • Always do what’s best for your clients. Never forget that it’s about them, not you. Whatever your license type, adopt the mindset of a true fiduciary.