There have been a number of learned papers written on how the Internet is changing business. And while many of these papers cover everything from Internet marketing to cloud processing, there has not been much attention on how the Internet has changed customer relations.

There was a time when doing business over a large geographic area was almost a guarantee of good customer relations, providing only that the company didn’t go out of its way to alienate customers. It didn’t really matter if one or two customers were upset. Business was good as long as most customers were happy. The reason was that even the most irate customer had limited access to the rest of the World. He may complain to his friends. He might even stand outside your establishment with a sign, for a few days. But ultimately, the amount of negative attention that he could generate would be minimal. Even if he attracted the attention of the media, that attention would usually last only as long as a couple of reports on the evening news.

Even a modest sized company could outlast bad publicity. All that was necessary was for the executives involved to keep their cool, not be confrontational and count on the fact that no matter how fast bad news traveled, it couldn’t travel very far. People would forget and move on and the damage done would heal relatively quickly.

This is no longer the case. The average customer has been empowered in ways beyond what anyone could have imagined in the 1980s. And that power is increasing. It is increasing in a number of ways. The first is that the ever expanding reach of the Internet has granted a level of communication to the average person that was once possessed only by politicians and media stars. Also, it is now possible for anything that is even remotely newsworthy to go viral and get spread across continents and even around the World. All it takes is striking the right emotional cord. The time when you could count on a news story disappearing in two days, is over.

The economic depression has also magnified the effect of the Internet. As the economy continues to go south, people are more and more looking for someone to blame. And one of the easiest people to blame is the businessman. After all, business is the majority of the economy.

Business friendly environments evaporate quickly when times are tough. The anything goes, laissez-faire, business can do no wrong attitude that dominates in prosperous times is replace by suspicion and mistrust of the “greedy businessman.” So, all it takes is one convincing story about how an innocent customer was abused by big bad business to ruin the reputation of a company. And the Internet is there to spread that story far and wide.

These days, customer feedback must be treated as a priority. It’s no longer possible to just wait for bad news to go away. It must be confronted and handled in a way that portrays your business as one of the “good guys.”

In the Internet era, customer feedback can make or break a company.