If you have any kind of online presence, customers, readers, followers, or whatever you call them, are talking about you. Whether it’s comments on your blog, tweets about your business, or reviews and feedback on sites like Yelp or Epinions, the Internet has made it easy for everyone to make their views known. And that’s a good thing. You want people to talk about your company, because the more people talk, the more recognition you get, and the awareness of your company grows, which of course is ultimately good for the bottom line. So today, more than ever, it’s important for entrepreneurs to build and maintain a great reputation. But what happens when the things being said about you or your company are less than flattering? What if they’re down right negative? A bad reputation can spread quickly online, and it’s imperative to get a handle on it before it harms your business.
If a former employee, angry customer, or even a vendor who’s mad that you switched suppliers decides to let loose with an attack on your company’s reputation, even if it’s unjustified, you’re going to have a very difficult time erasing it. When someone posts something about you online, their motives are hidden, so no one knows if their statements are legitimate or underhanded. And the worst part is that the comments can have a long half-life in search results, well beyond the day they were first posted. So what can you do to protect your reputation and perform damage control when necessary?
1. Have a plan. It’s important to have a program in place to seek out and deal with customer complaints head on. Rather than being surprised that someone has aired their grievances online, expect that it will happen and be ready to deal with it. The key to protecting your reputation is a speedy, well-thought-out response. It’s also a good idea to have a plan to use customer feedback to adjust your products, services and policies. While there are still situations where companies hire focus groups, the Internet has created a massive focus group, free to anyone who decides to use it properly.
2. Fight fire with fire. If there are going to be negative statements about your company online, one tactic for dealing with them is to make sure they’re outnumbered by positive statements. Launch a strong offensive that includes a targeted campaign of positive publicity on every network you can access. If you have employees, get them to help you. Be careful though. If it’s obvious that biased comments are coming from internal sources, you can do more damage than good. Take steps to make sure this isn’t the case, while always being honest. In other words, don’t say a comment is a testimonial from a customer if it isn’t. Instead, if the comment is coming from the company, keep it more general. If a customer provides a recommendation or compliment, get permission to quote them, and get it out there for all to see.
3. Follow up with your customers. This is just good business in general. If a customer has a concern, it’s always a good idea to address it right away, regardless of the fact that it can affect your online reputation. If you’re seeing a pattern in negative comments, you clearly have a problem that needs to be address. So be thankful you’re getting the feedback, and take care of the issue before it grows bigger. Then communicate honestly about the problem and the solution you’ve provided. These days transparency is key. Don’t be afraid to admit mistakes and shortcomings, as long as you’re also showing a willingness and ability to address them effectively. But be aware of one danger when responding directly to comments on many sites: your responses can serve to keep the thread alive and drive it up in search engine rankings. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you’ve very effectively addressed the situation, but it could serve to bring attention to what, for some people, was an otherwise unknown problem.
4. Be proactive. Rather than waiting for negative feedback to happen out in the online public, actively solicit feedback from your customers and give them an opportunity to easily provide you with their complaints, compliments, and ideas. Then follow up on all the communications promptly to avoid frustrated, public message board rants. Again, this is good business anyway. Soliciting feedback from customers allows you to get better and deliver what people want, which ultimately goes right to your bottom line.
Bottom line: The more popular your company, product, service, or blog is, the higher the chances that someone is out there spouting off negative stuff about you. It’s a part of the user-built Internet that we have to accept, and in many ways, it’s a positive thing – for consumers and for companies. But while preventing any negative comments is unrealistic, dealing with them effectively can be as easy as following the above practices.