While social media has provided businesses new ways of engaging customers and promoting products and services, there are downsides. While services such as Twitter, Facebook, Yelp, Digg and a host of others can be used to drive people to your business and to directly engage with them, these same services can just as quickly take your business down several notches. Sometimes, the fall can be precipitous, permanently harming your reputation and hitting your bottom line.
Take the troubles that happened to a local Toronto butcher. In a bid to reach new customers and to give something back to long-time patrons, the butcher decided to use an on-line group buying service to offer discounts on its high-quality meats. The coupon offer proved successful. Over 11,000 coupons were sold over two days. There was no way to honour all the coupons sold over a few days or even weeks, though the owner and staff tried their best. The problems were compounded upon when many frustrated coupon holders took to social media sites and other on-line business rating services to voice their frustrations. The negative fallout lasted for months and was soon written about in newspapers and reported on local television and radio programs.
Building Up; Tearing Down
What this local butcher discovered is that one’s reputation is terribly vulnerable online. It is vulnerable because the very tools that allow a business to engage with customers online and to build a business’ reputation can also damage that same business reputation.
Let’s take a closer look at how this can happen to a business regardless if that business is a large, multinational corporation or a local butcher or service shop.
Social media sites such as Twitter and others have revolutionized how large and small business can create and build a reputation using real-time customer feedback. Think of social media as today’s ‘word-of-mouth’ publicity, but with a wide electronic reach. What all businesses want is to have positive feedback from customers and for those customers to tell others about the quality service provided to them. It is the best kind of advertising, which is why all businesses are turning social media to get that ‘word-of-mouth’ publicity. The problem is obvious. People with negative impressions of your business, customer service or quality of work can post their feelings to these sites and forums. Get enough negative comments from persons and you can soon watch your online reputation and business suffer.
Polly Wood, senior team leader, special projects with Reputation.com, a pioneer in online reputation management, points to a Harvard Business Review study showing a one-star change in an online rating can have a five to nine per cent impact on revenue.
“One bad review, negative comment, Twitter tweet or Facebook post can seriously harm the reputation of a business,” she adds. “This is true whether or not the comments are in any way fair or accurate. Negative customer experiences are often transmitted instantly and can be very difficult to control.”
The reason why it is so hard to control such negative comments on social media and review sites is you almost never have a chance of pulling that person aside to find out exactly what is going on. A face-to-face meeting in the ‘real world’ is often enough to cool the situation down, discover what the problem is and to come to a mutually agreed-upon solution.
Micah Solomon, a customer service speaker and marketing strategist (www.micahsolomon.com) says owners and managers need to keep in mind that some criticism put online is legitimate while others are simply people venting steam, not thinking clearly as to what they are writing or its consequences.
“Try to remember that while many customers have legitimate and long-ignored grievances, even with well-meaning companies, others, some of the people who are randomly hurtful online — the folks I call “Click Puppies” — are doing it off the cuff, on the fly. Unlike your staff and yourself, they may be reacting in an unprofessional manner at that moment of outrage, even if the rest of their lives they are perfectly reasonable people. In fact, in many cases, after they’ve trashed you publicly online, they’re off to something else, to their next little 140-character haiku, with no memory of what they’ve done and how it may have affected you.”
Company X double-bills all customers — Must Think W R Suckrs — _FAIL
Take a look at the comment above: How are you feeling right now reading it? If this was posted about your service operation, you are probably feeling that you want to take this person out and throttle them (or at least comment that they should learn how to spell before posting anything). It is a natural reaction to being criticized in a manner that you believe is undeserved or false; and you naturally rush to defend your reputation and that of your staff.
“Many business owners are unprepared for the experience of being attacked online,” Wood says. “They lash out or attempt to solve the problem in other ways that only makes it worse.”
Attacking the person who posted the remark, questioning their integrity or competence to make a judgment on your service operation and staff, will likely provoke another angry remark against you. This back and forth can soon degenerate into an online ‘flame war.’
How should you respond? Solomon says if the person who made the comment can be reached directly, through a Twitter account if they have one, for example, it is best to reach out to them right away and see if you can pull the conversation off the public social media sites.
“By responding this way, you have a good chance to move the discussion out of a public venue and into a one-on-one situation, where you can work directly with your antagonist without thousands of eyes dissecting every more, or worse, catching bits and pieces as things progress, without ever grasping the whole story,” Solomon adds. “This dispute resolution approach is like an in-store situation where you take an irate customer aside, perhaps into your office, to privately discuss the matter, giving you both a chance to work together to arrive at a resolution.”
Another thing to avoid is trying to force the person who made the comments to take them off the social media sites, usually by threatening legal action or intimidating them in some way. Why is this course of action a terrible? Remember the old comment about Richard Nixon: it was not the break-in at Watergate that was the problem, it was the attempted cover-up that was the problem.
Well, threatening the person with legal action is a sure way to get people to take notice of what is going on and to think there must be some truth to what the person criticizing you is saying. If it wasn’t true, you would not be threatening them. You are likely going to generate a lot of unwanted publicity by this approach that will make things worse.
Solomon: “There’s even a term for this: the Streisand Effect, named after Barbara Streisand, who sued a photographer in a failed attempt to remove a photo of the singer’s mansion from the California Coastal Records Project, a strategic backfire that resulted in greater distribution of the photo than would have happened before. At the very least, threatening your customers does nothing to reduce the damage — and is very likely to backfire.”
Protecting an Online Reputation
So what can be done to protect one’s online reputation? First, sit down with your staff and create a plan of how you will react to any negative criticism. When you find a negative review or get an angry Tweet, everyone from the owner of the service operation to the apprentice should be one the same page as to how it should be handled. It is also a good idea to decide a point-person whose job it will be to monitor social media sites used for promoting the business and review sites that rate the business.
That person should also be charged with making sure you online presence, from the company website to its Facebook page are optimized to enhance the business reputation. What does that mean? Remember, your service shop employs trained, certified technicians with many years of experience. Make sure you online presence reflects that: use bios of your technicians, list their qualifications, certificates, experience and training they have received. Point out if they have unique vehicle qualifications, such as expert BMW technician, for example. If your service operation has received local business awards for customer service or outstanding community work, make sure you have that known. Include articles, blog posts, videos and social media updates to push your business more prominently on web searches. If you are on the third page of a Google search for automotive repair shops, you might as well not exist for many.
One thing that must be considered is to use a professional reputation management service, to monitor the growing number of social media sites and review sites and to proactively tackle potential posts, comments or criticisms that could harm one’s online reputation.
Such services have the advantage of being able enhance and protect your business reputation online while leaving you and your staff free to concentrate on running the business.