DefendingRep_Body.jpgBy Iris Dorbian.


Having a solid and sterling reputation can be a small business’ greatest currency. A good word-of-mouth can invest a company with credibility and cachet. Who needs a retinue of expensive PR flacks when you have glowing reviews on Yelp?


And yet, as quickly as a reputation can be built, it can be destroyed. The ubiquity of social media has upped the ante so much that even a single online negative review or rant on a site such as Twitter or Facebook can do immeasurable harm to a brand, be it a Fortune 500 company or a small mom-and-pop shop. But while the former might have a platoon of spin-doctors at its disposal to clean up the smears, a small business with limited resources may not be so lucky. How then can a small business perform damage control when it’s being slammed on the Internet?


Be proactive when dealing with complaints

Don’t be passive or silent. The sage advice that your grandmother once told you, to ignore attacks, is not applicable to Internet protocol, which in many ways, is reminiscent of the Wild, Wild West, except that back then, at least, you knew who your gun-toting antagonists were. That’s not an advantage afforded in the sometimes anarchic wilderness of cyberspace, where consumers can cloak their identities in anonymity while freely slinging mud about your company on myriad sites.


Andrew Dale, CEO of The Pin People, a 12-year-old lapel pin manufacturer based in New York City, knows all too well the devastating effect a negative Better Business Bureau (BBB) rating can have on a small business, particularly if you don’t respond to complaints within a certain timeframe. Recently, Dale’s company lost a lucrative order after the client performed some due diligence and discovered that The Pin People had an F rating, according to the BBB.


DefendingRep_PQ.jpgEmbarrassed, Dale, a retired cop and former Marine, went into damage control mode. He contacted the BBB and found out that his company received the F rating because it had never responded to two outstanding customer complaints, which surprised Dale as he was unaware of them. Turns out that out his company never received the complaints because the BBB sent them to an old mailing address it had on file.


“Since we never responded, they accepted both complaints and also penalized us for not responding!” recalls Dale, incredulously.


But fortunately, all was not lost. “The BBB explained that they could reopen the complaints and as long as my company responded to the two customers making the complaints and showed good faith, the complaints would be resolved,” he explains.


Dale offered the two customers in question an option to either redo the order or a complete refund. Following Dale’s response to the parties, The Pin People’s BBB F rating was removed and changed to no rating, which Dale admits was a much better scenario than a flunking grade.


“One party contacted me and we redid their order, and the other party never contacted us—as that complaint was over two years old,” relates Dale. “The BBB has since given us an A+ rating and we were just approved to be accredited by the BBB.”


Practice transparency and admit wrongdoing

Transparency, which in contemporary public relations parlance means telling the truth, has become synonymous with “authenticity,” another term frequently cited by top-tier PR professionals as a necessary tactic for companies to use when engaging with customers. The pros are obvious: By reaching out to consumers with transparent messaging, you will be able to win their confidence more easily as opposed to countering complaints with insincere sound bites and recrimination. The cons of leveraging this tactic is that you, as a small business owner, may learn some hard truths about your company directly from consumers who may not use polite language to express their dissatisfaction.


“The only way to resolve issues in today's social economy and protect the brand as well as sustain growth is to be authentic,” contends Mark Zhang, marketing director of Slip Stopper, a startup manufacturer of protective cases for smartphones. “That means admitting the problem, acting quickly to fix it, and apologizing for screwing up.”


Zhang learned this lesson firsthand recently after his company’s initial product launch encountered some “quality issues” when customers received their orders—apparently the adhesive on the back of the skin case was faulty, causing it to fall off the user's phone. “After we noticed our screw-up, we immediately reached out to customers and sent them replacement units,” he relates. “In some cases, we even doubled the order for free.”


But what if customer complaints are posted on popular review sites like Yelp? What then is the proper way for a small business to interface with disgruntled consumers?


“When your business is attacked through social media, get involved in the conversation,” advises Steve Wyer, managing director of the Franklin, Tennessee-based The Reputation Advocate, a crisis PR firm that works with small businesses to restore their online reputation. “Do not get into a war of words, be respectful, and present your perspective. Unreasonable claims, statements, and comments will be exposed for what they are if you present a rational dialogue.”


Regularly monitor your company’s online reputation

Whether it’s setting up a Google Alert or outfitting your computer software with a social media-monitoring tool such as Radian6, it behooves you to find out what consumers are saying about your company to safeguard its online reputation. It’s a pre-emptive defense, but also an imperative because if a complaint is not immediately addressed or resolved online, then “customers can tweet or post on Facebook and instantly tell hundreds of people,” notes Zhang. “If one of these messages gets retweeted, the negative message could reach thousands.”


Consider the source of the complaint(s)

Is the complaint from a legitimately irate customer or from what is commonly known in Internet slang as a “troll,” meaning someone who posts inflammatory or provocative rhetoric online for the sole purpose of riling up others? Bobby Zafarnia, president of Praecere a small business PR and media consulting firm in Washington, DC, says if it’s the former, then the “small business must respond carefully and do so in a way that satisfies the complainer and preserves the business's good name. However, if the complainer is a gadfly, someone who clearly is making unreasonable demands or just trying to push buttons, a simple “We appreciate your comment.” may suffice.”


But even if the complaint is unwarranted and unreasonable, it will still demand a response. “If you stay silent, it'll look like no one is in charge,” adds Zafarnia.


Prior to the digital age, a small business had little recourse when it came to defending its reputation against public customer complaints. If the company had the good fortune (and funds) to hire a savvy PR professional, then it could mount a counterattack via press releases and a news conference on a local TV or radio station. Given the current climate of instantaneous communication fostered by the Internet, however, such measures might be too little too late.. Accepting responsibility graciously and facing detractors with calm and reason will go a long way toward burnishing a tarnished reputation rather than feigning indifference and hoping the matter will magically clear itself up.