An online reputation primer for small businesses
Find out what both consumers and critics are saying about your company online. Investigate your brand from a consumer's standpoint. Where would you research your company if you were a potential customer? A Google search of your business's name is a good place to start, followed by a review of social media sites. Consumers often candidly discuss their feelings about brands and businesses on Twitter, Facebook and Yelp. List each reference to your business and assign it a positive, neutral or negative rating. Save the inventory to measure your progress periodically. To receive continuous notifications about mentions of your brand, subscribe to RSS feeds via Google Alerts.
If you find something negative concerning your brand, don't panic. Negative reviews can be addressed with the correct strategy. Try to understand the viewpoint of the person writing the comment and develop a solution. If you can respond, do so politely and helpfully. A sincere effort to reconcile a negative experience can often inspire a once unhappy customer to retract his or her negative review and change it to a positive one.
Building a favorable online presence begins with developing your brand's unique voice. By actively publishing content on social media sites, blogs, your company's website and other outlets, you give potential customers a feel for your business. Creating your own positive content increases the chances of achieving an online reputation that is wholesome overall and outranks negative content in search results.
After establishing a solid online foundation, perpetuate your brand's image through consistent engagement with your customer audience. Develop a schedule for regular content sharing. Over time, your online audience will begin to engage with your brand by commenting, sharing and interacting through social media and other digital outlets.
- Louise Elliott, public relations manager, The Tombras Group, Knoxville
The good, the bad and the ugly. It all shows up online, particularly in social media.
Businesses can ignore blogs, posts and reviews, talking them up or down. But experts say it's better to be part of the conversation — and for businesses to be among the first to get the exchanges going.
"It can be easy to look at it as something that has a mind of its own, and people are going to post what they're going to post," says Emma Williams, owner of Full Circle Communications in Chattanooga. "Not if you look at it as a tool to communicate in a specific manner, to let it manage or enhance your brand's reputation."
Strategies for managing Internet image vary according to company size. Big operations tend to have more resources to commit to the matter and might even hire someone that specializes in monitoring social and traditional media. The hospitality industry relies heavily on online third-party reviews in order to get customers, so many hotels and restaurants pay more attention to them than other industries do. Businesses that operate primarily online and offer technology-related services tend to be skilled at online interactions and work that to their advantage.
As a matter of course, EPB's customer service and marketing staffs monitor social media, tweets and Facebook postings. The Chattanooga-based electricity and telecommunications company also hired Meltwater, the international media monitoring service, to pay attention. Twice a day, EPB's public-relations coordinator gets updates from Meltwater showing when the company has been mentioned in traditional and social media.
"I'm aware if there is a conversation about EPB, really, anywhere in the world," EPB spokesman John Pless says.
The company also fields tweets from customers who send it questions directly, most often alerting EPB to power outages or asking about service, creating a two-way conversation.
"It's becoming the new way of communicating with us," Pless says.
That's probably a good thing. The Better Business Bureau serving Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia gets complaints almost every week regarding a utility company. Usually, it involves customers feeling they weren't given the attention and service they needed, says Jim Winsett, the local BBB president. The local BBB handles only complaints and resolutions; it doesn't offer customer reviews online, though other BBBs around the country do.
Hotel manager Paul Mezick started responding to customer feedback on travel websites years ago, after attending a conference that discussed social media. At the time, he was the general manager of Sheraton Read House in downtown Chattanooga.
"I wanted my customers to know that the head guy was responding to them," says Mezick, who now runs the Embassy Suites at Hamilton Place, recently ranked among Expedia's top 200 best-reviewed hotels worldwide.
Mezick spends one or two hours a week responding to reviews on TripAdvisor, the travel website. He responds to every one, good or bad, though the vast majority are favorable. There have been about 500 reviews, since the hotel opened, just over a year ago.
"Some people have said they booked solely because the top manager personally responded to the reviews," Mezick says. "So you can say to yourself, 'Wow, two or three is not very many.' If one or two came solely because of that, I'm fine with that."
Mezick's strategy works in the hotel's favor, according to some media experts, who say it's a good idea to respond to both positive and negative reviews.
"If someone has taken the time to say something good about your business publicly they should be at least thanked for it," says Mark Bays, business and technology counselor of the Tennessee Small Business Development Center at Eastern Tennessee State University. "It can also let the business know if they are hitting the service mark."
Still, business representatives don't want to sound scripted with their gratitude, even if they are essentially saying the same thing over and over.
"It becomes a challenge to continue to be creative with your responses," Mezick says. "I try to make the responses as personal as I can."
Generally, it's easier to respond to comments that cite problems, and that can be an opportunity to nip those problems before they worsen. But some negative reviews are a farce. A recent customer complained that he couldn't get a staff member to help him with a problem, which was not true, Mezick says. In response, the management staff member who had spoken to the client responded to the review, noting what had transpired — including the fact that he'd given the guest his cell phone number. In a different case, a customer mixed up Embassy Suites with another hotel and ranted about a parking fee; Mezick's hotel doesn't charge for parking. TripAdvisor, which has a mechanism for hotels to contest postings, can remove such reviews in clear-cut situations like that.
"You have to always be prepared for negative reviews," Mezick says. "No hotel out there is perfect. Every once in a while something is going to happen, and we're going to hear about it, but they better be exceptions. And I hope the public sees that."
Even if a business could remove negative reviews, many experts say, it's probably not in their best interest to do that for the very reason Mezick noted: it's unrealistic for a business to be perfect all the time.
"Some people will not trust business reviews that look too perfect or structured," Bays of ETSU says. "These negative reviews, when responded to appropriately, can show customers that if they have an issue, the business will do what they need to correct it and have a satisfied customer in the end."
That said, derogatory reviews that don't address specific issues can vex business owners and leave them without a constructive course of action.
"If somebody just says, 'Your company sucks,' you may want to let that go," says Williams of Full Circle Communications. "Don't be over reactive. You might want to just give it a minute. It all goes back to some common sense."
When Shalin and Niti Tejani took over Ribbons and Bows, Oh My!, a Chattanooga-based online retailer, they decided to let customers know they were the new owners so that clients could connect directly with them. A few had knee-jerk reactions. "It was like, 'Oh, changes! There is a new owner,' " Niti Tejani says.
Soon after, postings on a third-party forum with the subject line, "Heard RABOM has been SOLD!!!" complained about quality and service. As is often the case, those who commented used screen names.
"Online, they feel like they can just say anything," Tejani says. "We learned not to take it personally."
Tejani responded in the forum by noting, among other things, that the company still used the same supplier the previous owner had, so ribbon quality shouldn't have changed. She also encouraged the customer to contact her directly if an order got botched. Since taking over, the Tejanis are making greater use of Facebook and other online platforms to keep up RABOM's profile. The owners also periodically search Google to check what comes up about them.
"We want to use the web but we're afraid of people posting negative things," Williams of Full Circle notes. "That is always an opportunity for engagement and that is really where the value is. Often it can be an opportunity to turn a dissatisfied customer into a satisfied customer."
Chattanooga-based Southtree was ahead of the curve when it came to making social media and online tools work in its favor. The company deals in technology and almost never interfaces with customers in the flesh. In fact, 98 percent of its customers aren't even in Tennessee.
"We're a young millennial startup," says Adam Boeselager, who launched the company in 2001 with Nick Maaco. "We didn't implement some sort of Facebook strategy. For a while social media was just viewed as a place where you can interact with customers. I think interactive social media platforms are an opportunity to sort of win new customers and find new sales."
Southtree — which digitizes old tapes, film, slides, photos and audio — keeps up Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well as offering web chat through its hip web site. If any new online platform launches, the company secures the "Southtree" handle immediately.
That's become good practice. Once someone had taken the Twitter handle that showed Southtree's name but never set up a profile and wasn't using it. Another time someone, most likely a competitor, Boeselager says, had taken on "Southtree" on a social media site and used it to disparage the company. Southtree contacted the social media platform directly to get it taken down.
The company, which has a staff of about 60, looks for innovative ways to serve customers. "We're always open to new stuff," Boeselager says. "Customer service isn't just on the telephone; it's any form of communication."
Customers are known to use Southtree's Facebook page to let the company know that they've sent an order — and to ask Southtree to let them know when it's arrived.
"It's probably one of the more positive things we've done to engage people," Boeselager says. "Sally from Idaho will tell us she's sending in 12 video tapes. Sometime Nick or myself will jump in to respond."
The company processed about 40,000 orders last. It uses Instagram primarily to show its personality and Twitter and Facebook to engage in conversations.
"It comes down to trust; we're not shipping shoes," Boeselager says. "With us, we're digitizing people's one-of-a-kind memories. For our company, in particular, the bar is really high."
For Boeselager, there's no doubt: Businesses whose commerce is primarily online have to have active and well-managed social media accounts.
"It builds up credibility in people's minds," he says. "They think, 'If they can manage this well, they can probably manage other things as well.' "
This article first appeared in Edge magazine, which may be viewed at www.meetsforbusiness.com