If you operate on any of the more popular social media platforms for your bank or credit union, you know that member or customer complaints can get pretty nasty online. For some reason, people feel emboldened to say things from behind the keyboard that they might not say to another person’s face.

A few weeks ago, fast food giants Wendy’s and Burger King had a somewhat heated exchange when discussing their relative value meals on Twitter. I’ll try to forget about how creepy I find the Burger King “King” when discussing the exchange.

Wendy’s shared a tweet about its new “four for $4” value meal. The next day, Burger King responded with a tweet about its “five for $4″ value meal that also included the zinger “five for $4, because five is better than four.”

Then it got interesting.

A Twitter follower of Wendy’s pointed the Burger King tweets out to them, egging them on with “what are you firing back?”

Wendy’s quickly tweeted “edible food.”

Daaaaaang.

Although Wendy’s did remove the tweet, it’s out there forever and plenty of people saw it.

All burns aside, what can banks and credit unions learn from this exchange?

Number one – don’t get involved in social media wars with your competitors.

Number two – you will never ever ever win an online debate with a member or customer.

The member/customer could be 147% wrong, but once they take their grievance to social media, your one and only recourse is to address their concern and invite them to take it up with you in it off-line forum. Any other response will more than likely generate an angrier response from the consumer, and the one who ends up looking bad is almost always the financial institution.

Here’s an example:

Member/customer on Twitter: “I just got turned down for a loan at your credit union/bank and couldn’t be more disgusted. You guys totally screwed me over and I’ll never do business with you again.”

Credit union/bank response on Twitter: “thank you for your feedback. We are concerned to learn that you were not pleased with your experience at our bank/credit union. We would like to discuss this with you in detail. Please reach out to us at (email address) or (telephone number). Thank you.”

From there, they can howl at the moon if they don’t like your response. In the public eye, you did acknowledge their concern and gave them a way to discuss it with you off-line. Online fights are a lot like schoolyard fights from our childhoods. A circle of people will gather around the combatants, both to watch and to egg them on. With modern social media, that circle can be thousands or millions of people. That’s an audience you don’t want and a fight you can’t win.

While Wendy’s may be +1 in the online value meal war with Burger King, the best practice to pick up from this is simple. Use your social media platforms to interact and engage with members and customers in positive and nurturing ways. And when that angry consumer pops up (and believe me, they will eventually) politely acknowledge their concern in the public social media forum and give them ample opportunity to take it up with you off-line.