If customers complain about you online, take heart: That means they’re still customers.

Complaints are gold. Or at least they should be. Why? Jay Baer’s recent book Hug Your Haters, the result of work done by Edison Research, makes the point that responding to “onstage haters”—customers who complain on social media—can make them advocates for your brand, an idea that dovetails with research I did 20 years ago and with work I just completed at Constellation Research. And all of my customer service colleagues see the same thing. When a customer has a problem and the brand fixes it, the customer is even more loyal than if the customer never had an issue. This is no surprise.

When customers have issues, they need to know they can get help—that you, as a brand, are there. That you will be listening. Remember, “Sharing is caring.” If customers share their issue, complaint, or difficulty with you, that means you still have them as customers. They still care enough to write. When they go silent and walk away, that’s when you’ve lost them.

A brand might not realize it, but when customers don’t see the kind of customer care that would otherwise make them loyal, they will remove themselves from your marketing funnel. You could still be sending them emails, tweets, contests and sweepstakes offers, or whatever marketing outreach you choose. But just know that if your service is not up to par, you are wasting your customer acquisition dollars on customers who have already turned away from you, no matter how loudly you shout at them. They are gone, gone, gone.

But if they are tweeting, Facebooking, emailing, or calling—connecting with you in any way, even if it is to gripe—you still have the chance to turn the situation around. And that’s where the gold is. It is feedback that you as a CEO, as a brand, as a company need to have to make things better.

Sure, there will always be customers who complain for a living, trying to get something for free. But if you are doing social media monitoring on an everyday basis, you know who these characters are. And you can choose to deal with them differently from how you approach those customers who just want you to make good on your brand promise—who want the product or service to be what you said it was going to be. I certainly hope we don’t have to resort to the days of Jeff Jarvis and “Dell Hell” to get companies to realize that social customer service is the canary in your coal mine. The air is running thin, and the customer is on the brink of no longer being your customer.

If you are a CEO and what I am writing isn’t hitting home, note that the ROI of social customer care goes well beyond just customer care, but carries over into PR, marketing, corporate communications, supply chain, ERP, HR, and so on. The return is well worth it, but is your company willing to go through the digital transformation it will require? It’s not about doing the right things; it is about doing things differently. It takes courage to look at your current state, observe your competitors, and assess where your customer service—in particular, your social customer service—is and where it should be. If your social customer care is not measuring up, then what will you do next? Fight for change or be complacent? Companies that don’t change might not be around much longer. Those that do will thrive. Thrive or die—it’s up to you.

Natalie Petouhoff, Ph.D., is vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research. She can be reached via Twitter @DrNatalie or at www.DrNatalieNews.com.