Online reputation management means tracking positive news and guarding against negative news.
At Country Meadows Retirement Communities, Mandi Block keeps a close eye on online consumer reviews. As vice president of advertising and communications, it’s up to her to safeguard the company’s online reputation.
"In our industry, referrals are the No. 1 resource that our prospects seek out. That starts with family or a friend, but the online world has definitely broadened what a 'referral' means," Block says. "If somebody sees enough positive reviews for an establishment, that helps people validate where they should go."
The opposite also holds true. For many small businesses, reputation management includes not just tracking positive news, but also guarding against the negative. These days, feedback on sites like Yelp!, Google+ and Yahoo! Local can make a big difference to a small business.
"If you’re a small business, there’s no way around it: You need to follow general and industry-specific review sites," said Brent Franson VP Advanced Client Solutions at online reputation management firm
"These are front-row seats to what your customers are saying about you specifically. That’s really valuable insight into customer perception, issues you may need to resolve, and even things you are doing well," Franson says.
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While ethics prohibits seeding a site with positive reviews, it is still possible to build up one’s online reputation. At law firm Wilson LF in Andover, Massachusetts, for instance, General Counsel Tara Wilson encourages her satisfied clients to make their opinions known, gently urging their online feedback, without putting any pressure on them.
"We give them a sheet at the end of the process, and we put all the places where we are listed. We encourage them to write an email or leave a comment on one of these sites," she says.
This strategy forms a key element in reputation management, Franson says.
"Every business should be actively asking customers to share accurate, honest feedback on review sites," he says. Not every review will be positive, but "your results will normalize over time, meaning the positive and negative reviews will come into a balance that reflects the reality of who you are offline. If you’re a good business, your reviews will reflect that. If you have some areas for improvement, reviews are your opportunity and impetus to pick up your game."
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Coping with Criticism
The occasional negative review is almost inevitable. What matters is how the business owner chooses to respond.
Wilson hasn’t seen a negative review for her firm yet, but she’s been readying herself by watching how others cope. "For example, a small business owner I know had a negative review posted and she personally reached out to the client offering a complimentary service," she says. With the issue resolved, "the client even thanked the small business owner on the online review site."
While no small business is perfect, "it is a great business if they are willing to admit their mistake and correct it as best they can," she says.
On sites that allow responses, business owners have the chance to show the world that they’re on their game. They can post in detail their actions in dealing with the issue, demonstrating that they are ready and willing to step up when things go wrong.
Where a public response isn’t possible, successful business owners will make personal contact, talking through the problem to ensure the patron reaches a satisfactory resolution.
"Be courteous and professional. Acknowledge the problem and the customer’s feelings: It’s important, in most cases, to make sure the customer knows you understand their perspective," Franson says. "It’s also worth noting that in some cases, it will be clear that a customer is totally unreasonable or unwilling to work with you. In these extreme cases, it’s better not to engage at all."
Even online, the old adage holds true: You can’t win ’em all.
For service-oriented small businesses in particular, AngiesList.com come has assumed an especially high profile. The site claims more than 1.5 million households check its reviews of some 550 different services, with members submitting more than 60,000 reviews a month. Services run the gamut from lawn care and auto repair to solar panel installation and medical providers.
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