By William Lynott
The influence of social media is great, and given the ease with which anyone can spread negative—and even false—information online, staying on top of what people are saying about your business and responding appropriately are critical operating responsibilities.
In one study, nearly half of adults learn about companies with which they may do business by way of social media. Researching a company or product online before making a purchase has become the norm for millions of Americans.
Social media allows anyone, rightfully or not, to launch an attack and shine an unflattering light on a business. To a great extent, social media is responsible for the fact that online reputation management is now a $5 billion industry. While there are dozens of companies devoted to monitoring, repairing, improving, and policing the reputations of individuals and businesses, for many hiring such a firm is impractical—which leaves “doing it yourself” as the only option. Here are some tips:
To see what people in are saying about local businesses, even your own or your competitor’s, log on to Yelp (www.yelp.com) and type “electrical distributors” or “electrical supply” in the search box. You can also log on to Google (or any other search engine) to see what others may be saying about your distributorship.
If your search fails to find any negative comments about your distributorship, you’re off to a good start. Now is the time to take a proactive approach to maintaining a positive online reputation.
It is likely that some, even most, of your customers and prospects are active on social media so don’t hesitate to ask satisfied clients, especially repeat clients with whom you have a strong relationship, to post positive comments on their favorite websites. Most people want to help other people and this is a good way for your client and friends to help you. Once there are positive comments on a website, it becomes more difficult for someone to post a critical comment.
But be sure to do this in an ethical manner. Flooding websites with fake favorable reviews is a common practice—one that is easy for savvy consumers to detect and one that often backfires with an effect opposite from the one intended.
Even if you find no negative comments about your business, it’s important to police the cyber airwaves regularly and put safety precautions in place early. Once your online reputation is gone, it will be tough to get it back.
But what can be done to repair a damaged reputation when you find one or more unfavorable postings online? That all depends. Some will be anonymous; others will allow a direct (and public) reply. In either case, it is time for you to take some action.
Don’t try to respond to the critic on his or her own terms. It is always best to take a step back, mull over the situation, and avoid any direct confrontation. The usual end-result of a harsh response is that the critical posting will remain high in the search results for your business, resulting in the exact opposite of the intended result. Keep in mind that it is important for you to remain in charge of the arena in which the exchange is taking place. A direct confrontation serves the best interests of the complainer, not you.
Never lose sight of the fact that website postings, just like emails, remain in cyberspace forever. Make sure that your staff keeps this in mind when composing a posting to any website. Remember that huge numbers of people, including possible customers, are likely to view the message and your company’s approach to handling a grievance.
Some websites will include the names of the people commenting on the business. This presents a very different circumstance from that of anonymous postings. If the posting is legitimate, it is likely that you will recognize the name of an actual customer. Seeing a negative comment from a customer will probably come as an unpleasant surprise, but handled properly that can represent an opportunity to strengthen your business.
Marketing studies over the years have indicated that, on average, it costs five times as much to gain a new customer than to maintain an existing customer. That’s why it is so important to do everything practical to resolve the issue about which your client is complaining.
Since the complaint appeared in a public forum, you need to reply in that same forum. Much of the guidelines will be the same as those for replying to anonymous complaints. However, since the complaint has come from an existing customer, you may also want to contact the customer directly by telephone or letter. In this situation, a personal telephone call would be far more desirable and more effective than a letter.
Regardless of the type of complaint and the medium in which it appeared, the following guidelines will help your company to turn a negative into a positive.
- Don’t hesitate to apologize.
Face up to it. Sometimes a critic’s complaint is justified. When that happens, it’s best apologize as quickly as possible. There is nothing that social media surfers love more than a public apology. Just be certain that the apology is sincere and not defensive. Owning up to a mistake and apologizing for it will go a long way toward mending a damaged online reputation.
- Get involved in social media.
Since social media is the arena in which reputations are damaged or enhanced, it makes sense for your business to be a participant. It is always best not to get involved in petty personal chatter. Every one of your company’s postings should be a proactive or reactive effort to polish your business reputation.
- Create a Website.
One of the most effective proactive measures is a website. This gives your company a place to talk about your products and services and their benefits, and provide contact information and your location.
- Never forget the permanence of the Web.
Once a thoughtless comment appears on a social media website, it can be painfully difficult if not impossible to remove it. Before you hit the “enter” button, take a deep breath and make sure that it is really what you want to say.
- Keep at it.
Perhaps most important of all is the need to regularly monitor cyberspace for postings that affect your company’s reputation. Maybe that means getting active on Twitter or Facebook or one of the other major social media sites. Even if you aren’t computer savvy yourself, it is likely that someone on your staff has the necessary experience to keep an eye on what is being said about your business.
Before social media came on the scene, there never was such a powerful means for influencing public opinion with a few keystrokes. When you launched your business, your reputation was as clean as a new snowfall. Social media can help you to keep it that way.
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