Managing your online reputation has become key to growing a business and satisfying customers today. Although customer reviews have tremendous power—a positive review can influence others to try your product or service, while the damage and lost sales from a negative comment could take months to undo—they are just one part of a reputation management strategy. Addressing customer concerns in a professional, constructive manner and providing relevant content can also have an effect on how you and your business are perceived. Experts agree that being vigilant about shaping their online reputation on a regular basis can help small businesses lessen the damage when a problem does arise and, in some cases, even improve the standing of their business in the eyes of their customers.
"Online reputation management is the process of making sure your customers and prospects find the most accurate results about you," says Patrick Ambron, CEO of BrandYourself, which provides tools for generating positive search results. "You don't want them to find something irrelevant, you don't want them to find a competitor, and you certainly don't want them to find negative reviews."
The first step in a reputation management strategy is to have a robust online presence, such as a business website with content that is regularly refreshed. Second, maintain strong profiles on the major social media platforms—Facebook, Google Plus, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube—and flesh them out fully and correctly. "Make sure they are search engine friendly," Ambron says. "For example, use the full name of your business across these profiles, not a shortened version. Then link them all together."
Encourage your customers to post reviews, either on your site or on independent review sites such as Yelp. Then, if a customer posts a negative review or is being vindictive for no discernable reason, it will appear as an isolated incident in a long string of positive experiences. But if you do get a negative review, reaching out to the customer and offering to work with them to address their complaint can often salvage the relationship.
"The key is to be proactive," Ambron says. "It's not a defensive game. I see a lot of businesses waiting until there's a problem to really pay attention to it. Then you're making a lot more work for yourself while you're losing business at the same time."
Make it two-sided
Besides monitoring comments from the outside, small businesses should also make sure that communications sent from inside their company are on target.
"Many times issues happen just from the carelessness of employees Tweeting or sharing messages on Facebook that are negative," says Nick Cuttonaro, vice president of The Link Builders, an Owings Mills, Maryland-based reputation management firm. "Everyone that is part of the business should be conscious of your brand message."
Besides Googling themselves, small businesses should cast a wider net—such as checking out Twitter or Amazon reviews—to hear what customers are saying. If you do come across a negative review, Cuttonaro recommends a 24-hour cooling down period before responding. Sometimes simply picking up the phone and discussing it with the disgruntled customer can resolve the problem. Regardless of the method of your reply, keep the conversation offline. "You really don't want to get in a heated dialogue in a public forum because all it takes is for a third party to take a screen shot and that creates more of a reputation challenge," Cuttonaro explains.
Cuttonaro says that while it's necessary to put out good content, small businesses must be in the people business—interacting with their customers and establishing a true two-way dialogue. For example, retweeting a customer's posts or hitting the "like" button on their Facebook page can show support for them, making them more likely to do the same for your business. "It's not about you," Cuttonaro says. "It's about the people who follow you and nurturing those relationships. Making people feel good on social media is something that every brand can do."
Post relevant content
Experts agree that having a sound content strategy—putting out relevant material regularly across different online channels—is vital to combat potential attacks on your reputation. "Almost every business should have an online blog," says Chris Silver Smith, president of Argent Media, a Dallas, Texas-based search engine marketing company. "A blog gives you a platform for interacting with people online and it also gives you a foundation of information that you can post periodically on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus."
Dealing with complaints in good faith may not only resolve the problem, but may actually be more valuable in the long run. For example, Smith worked with a restaurant owner who received a bad review on Yelp. The owner acknowledged the customer's complaint, admitted that service was off that night, and invited them to come back again for a complimentary meal. The customer agreed, was dazzled by the service, and posted a glowing review on Yelp.
It takes only one negative comment to derail the goodwill your business has built. Managing your online reputation before a problem presents itself can help you react quickly and decisively, protect your good name, and that of your business as well.