Protecting Your Reputation Online

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In July, a lion died — and it remains international news.

You undoubtedly know this story. The death wasn’t from old age or falling victim to a rival. The culprit was an American dentist, Walter Palmer, on a big game hunting trip. News reports indicate that Cecil the lion was lured out of a protected national park in Zimbabwe and subsequently shot, skinned and beheaded, his corpse left to rot. In the aftermath of intense public scrutiny — expressed extensively on Twitter, on Palmer’s dental practice’s Yelp account, in vandalism at his home, and by news outlets — Palmer continues to keep a very low profile and his dental practice remained closed until very recently.

CEO of Reputation.com Michael Fertik is a scheduled speaker at the DLD Tel Aviv 2015 conference

In that same month, there were stories on other topics from police brutality to brutal acts of terrorism that should have sparked ongoing outrage — yet they didn’t. Why? Perhaps the Cecil killing violated a collective sense of fair play (it did mine). Maybe animals are a safe proxy for venting our ire about more sensitive topics.

We don’t always know why some situations trigger virality over others. But we do know what often happens when the mob lights its torches and shoulders their digital pitchforks: social media lights up, reputations crumble as evidenced by online search results, businesses lose profitability as customers look elsewhere, and one narrative dominates. And while Cecil is an extreme example, even garden-variety instances of poor customer service or callousness can catalyze a crowd and produce similar results. Think “United Breaks Guitars” — written by a musician angered by the airline’s response to his damaged instrument.

So what can you, as a large enterprise company or small business, do to inure yourself against this possibility? Even better, are you able to turn the power of what’s online to actually benefit you? Simple steps can make a big difference:

Understand the landscape. Customers are increasingly turning to general consumer reviews and even vertical-specific sites for an unvarnished perspective on you. That’s a problem because the majority of businesses in most industries tend to have no reviews, or very few at best. Whether a company is a David or more like a Goliath, it’s a significant vulnerability. All it might potentially take is one piece of negative feedback to bring down an excellent star rating. Reviews are months, even years old? Prospective customers won’t be sure if they’re still relevant — or may even wonder if you’re still in business. No response from you on any feedback customers leave? You look like you don’t even care.

Be proactive. When customers review businesses on their own, it’s typically because they’re negatively motivated. Think about it: most of us accept a good experience as our due. That’s the unwritten consumer contract: we patronize your business, you provide us with a product or service in a reasonably pleasant manner. That’s what we expect and it’s not unreasonable — so when the opposite occurs, so does our wrath. But when businesses proactively ask all customers to share honest feedback about their experiences, something incredible happens. The volume of reviews increases — and typically the number of positive ones far outpaces those that are negative.

Make it easy. Customers have great intentions to leave feedback, especially when you explain how important it is. But life often gets in the way. The best option is to have a device ready at the point of sale for the customer to quickly share a review. If that’s not a possibility, include easy links to your company pages on the review sites that matter most to your business when you email your customers. You can also mobilize your customer-facing employees to make a light verbal ask of most customers.

Ask for feedback the right way. It’s tempting to incentivize for reviews — to offer a free product, a discount on a service, or a fun gift in exchange for a person sharing her perspective. Refrain. There’s real value in authentic feedback — and when you provide a sweetener, you’re not getting the input you really require to understand your customers and either make improvements or stay your course. You’re also diminishing the quality of the feedback.

Be social. Social media matters. You don’t necessarily need to be on every social site — but at the minimum, figure out which channels your customers use and have a presence there. If your business lends itself to visuals, perhaps it’s Pinterest. B2B? Consider LinkedIn. Facebook might be the first place a straight-up consumer company should explore. Regardless of which sites you pick, make sure you fully commit. Nothing is worse than having a social media presence that’s never actually present.

It’s how you say it. You must be responsive on your online channels — both on social media and on review sites. It’s not just about resolving a situation for a current customer or thanking someone for leaving a lovely note. It’s about signaling to future customers that yours is a business that cares about its patrons. Do it respectfully, with a polite and pleasant tone. If the situation is negative, indicate you’d like to reach out personally via phone or email. Regardless of the outcome, your calm response denotes care and class, two qualities that matter to most customers.

Invest some time in building up your digital reputation — the ROI will be worth it.

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