Many small business owners erroneously think that as long as they provide courteous service and a quality product, their online reputation will in essence manage itself. In reality, taking a passive attitude towards reputation management can do serious harm to your business—even if you’re doing everything else well.
Controlling Your Online Reputation Before It Controls You
Though the Internet is wonderful in many ways, the mask of anonymity it allows users to put on has long become a haven for people who wish to express unduly negative or aggressive sentiments. Likewise, this anonymity makes it easier to produce fake reviews and untruthful endorsements. For small business owners, the potential problems inherent in neglecting online reputation management are therefore two-fold. Here are the reasons why:
1. Inconsistency in Consumer Attitudes
Firstly, ignoring online reviews means that your business is vulnerable to unfairly disgruntled customers, who either cannot forgive an honest mistake on the part of one of your employees (no matter what efforts were made to correct said error), or who simply have an axe to grind (perhaps they were, for example, already having a bad day). Likewise, sometimes a customer will later find what looks like a “better deal” for similar products or services elsewhere and so become unhappy. The list of potential complaints is limited only by the human imagination, so even the most reputable business owners may find themselves targeted by negative online reviews.
2. Lack of Business Ethics in Competition
Secondly, when neglecting reputation management, you are indirectly leaving your business as a helpless prey to competitors who are paying people to post negative reviews of others and manipulate customers into thinking their own is a better choice. Though Google is fairly diligent about tracking down fake reviewers and people who post a significant number of phony reviews, they cannot possibly catch all of them, and other online review services are often far less dedicated to this cause than Google is.
3. Backlash from High Customer Expectation
Besides the damage done by unfair and fake reviews, there is also a third (and much less discussed) factor: loyalty. Loyal customers are, ironically, among the most likely to leave a critical review of your business. Research conducted by Eric Anderson, Prf. Of Marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and Duncan Simester, MIT’s Sloan School of Management, revealed that many writers of negative reviews are among the best customers of the businesses they criticize. Quoting the French maxim which states that “your best friends are your hardest critics,” the professors point out that when customers become familiar with a business, they are more likely to treat it like they would with a friend, offering honest opinions not out of malice, but in the hope that they will help that business improve. This is why many online reviews have the tone of, “I usually love this restaurant and I come here every Friday, but last time I went, the service was slow,” or, “I have ordered from this store for years and never had a problem, but on my last order, they forgot to include an item I ordered.”
The above issues are a significant problem because most consumers trust and rely on online reviews to guide their purchasing decisions, despite the fact that many people are aware of the way the faceless nature of the Internet facilitates negativity and dishonesty. According to Nielsen’s most recent Global Trust in Advertising study, 66% of global consumers has high faith in online reviews—from complete strangers—when they are deciding whether or not to buy a product or service. In short, enough negative reviews can kill a business, and if you’re not on top of the situation, you won’t know what is happening until it’s too late and your revenue has completely dried up.
The Art of Active Brand Reputation Management: Protecting Your Reputation Online
1. Be Present
Reputation management starts with simply being where the action is: On social media. Whether customers are voicing their opinions through Google reviews, Yelp reviews, or on Twitter or Facebook, you need to be there and be ready to respond to each review in a way that is polite and professional while still defending your business approach to the problem being reported. Being properly “present” in this way will also ensure that you notice fake reviews and can alert the responsible authorities before your reputation is unfairly damaged.
2. Be Active
Interacting regularly on social media also helps to build trust in your brand; prospective customers can tell by glancing at your responses on social media that if they do run into a problem, there is a real human presence available to talk to. Taking the time to interact directly with customers in this way shows that you do genuinely care about their concerns, particularly if you take the time to actively empathize with even the most aggressive customers.
3. Be in Control
You should also be aware that in the worst case scenario, you may be entitled to take legal action; online reviews, which use defamatory language and report false information, obviously aimed at damaging a company’s reputation are illegal (they are a form of libel). If your business is being slandered in this way, seek legal counsel as soon as possible—A lawyer can help you fight back effectively and restore your reputation.