Reputation management 101 for local businesses

Consumers today rely overwhelmingly on online reviews. A survey from BrightLocal recently revealed that 88 percent of consumers trust opinions published on the Internet at least as much as they trust recommendations from friends and family members. Businesses, in turn, rely on word-of-mouth advertising – and if the reviews are negative, you could be in trouble. 

As a local business owner, it’s up to you to keep tabs on your online reputation. However, from administering surveys to addressing negative feedback to monitoring your social media, there’s a lot to keep track of. Let’s break it down into bite-sized pieces.

Claim Your Business Across the Web

Social media matters, both on and off individual social networks. To start, claim your business’s profiles on all social networks and local map apps, including Google Maps, Yelp, Facebook and any others. This will prevent unscrupulous users from creating a fake profile in your name and tarnishing your reputation.

Notably, Google has reestablished its agreement with Twitter so tweets now appear in both mobile and desktop search results. Any tweets that mention your brand may end up being the first thing prospects see when they search your business. Monitor the activity on your social media profiles and keep tabs on how they appear in search results.

Not only should your social media profiles exist, they should also be active. These profiles are part of your brand identity. They should provide the basis of your online interactions with consumers.

Create a Culture of Professionalism

Before you can address feedback coming from outside the company, you’ll need to make sure all employees are on the same page. It’s not unusual for brands to suffer because of an employee’s online actions. Your employees’ individual social media profiles can also reflect on your company. Your job is to make sure they convey a positive message.

In every branch of the U.S. military, members are required to display utmost professionalism while in uniform. They are prohibited from chewing gum, keeping their hands in their pockets and displaying affection publicly to their spouses. These regulations are in place because professionalism is part of the military’s image.

This isn’t to say you need to enforce militaristic policies on your employees. What you should do is develop a comprehensive policy explaining how employees can behave online, especially while representing your brand, and especially on social media. Most importantly, team members should not speak on your company’s behalf unless authorized to do so, and they should not behave in an unreasonable way while representing your company.

Take Customer Feedback Seriously

Review sites like Yelp are awash with negative consumer feedback. In a 2012 poll, 19.1 percent of respondents were more likely to write reviews after bad experiences, while 16.8 percent were more likely to write in response to pleasant ones. The difference may be slight, but the answer is the same: People are more likely to review negative experiences and say nothing in response to positive ones.

Even major corporations can suffer from poor reputation management. In 2005, Sony made the mistake of releasing copy-protected CDs that had the unintended side effect of exposing customers’ computers to malware. Rather than responding to consumer concerns, the company evaded criticism, which resulted in a loss of several million dollars in class-action lawsuits.

When you receive negative feedback, it can be hard to view the situation in a positive light. An online presence is an invitation for critiques and you need to take them seriously. Critics are well within their rights to express their opinions, and you are well within your rights to respond.

However, your reputation hinges on the way you respond. Getting defensive or using inflammatory language won’t reflect well on your company, even if you respond in private. Part of taking your critics seriously is empathizing with their situation. Instead of angrily replying to unfair criticisms, take the necessary time to read and internalize the message before you decide how to proceed.

Respond Tactfully to Criticism

Start out by writing a private reply to the negative reviewer. Address the problems they pointed out with sympathy and understanding. If you don’t receive a response after a couple of days – or if the reviewer responds in a way that’s clearly unreasonable – you can proceed to leaving a public response.

As you craft your reply, make sure you focus on providing a solution. If the review didn’t mention a specific problem, your response can be as simple as encouraging the reviewer to contact you to further discuss their issues.

If they did address a specific problem – whether it was a subpar product or a rude customer service representative – your solution should be just as specific. For example, you could offer a refund or a free replacement for a defective product. Additionally, feel free to ask for more information about any employee who failed to represent your values, so you can determine appropriate next steps.

Address Defamatory Content

There are legitimate reviews, and then there are defamatory ones. Some people go beyond posting basic negative reviews on sites like Yelp and instead take their content to a hate site. Some hate sites contain illegal content, false information and petty insults, which can result in problematic search results for you. No one wants Google to auto-fill “scam” or “rip-off” in a search of their business name.

If a user claimed something false about your company with the express purpose of damaging your reputation, you can have the review removed. Tread cautiously, however, because removing legitimate negative reviews will likely generate more negative feedback. If the situation is bad enough, hiring an online analyst and/or a legal liaison might be your best option.   

Don’t Wait Until There’s a Problem

Instead of waiting around for the ball to drop, actively solicit feedback, whether via email or online form. To nudge consumers in a positive direction, ask a gentle question, like “did we exceed your expectations today? Let us know how we did!”

Preventing damage is easier – not to mention cheaper – than doing damage control. The products and services you provide should be of the highest possible quality at the best possible value, because these factors formulate the basis of any review. You shouldn’t wait until there’s a problem before you start working on your reputation.