Managing Your Online Reputation

Managing Your Online Reputation

A small-business guide to maintaining positive word of mouth in the age of Yelp

By Bettijane Levine 07/01/2013

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If you’re a small-business owner in this incredibly diverse valley, you might be working in relative isolation, designing or making items for someone else to sell. In that case, stop reading now. We’re talking here to owners of the approximately 70,000 small Arroyoland businesses that offer a product or service directly to the general public, and who depend on the public to survive and thrive.

If you’re one of them, you already know that customers who like what you offer will return repeatedly. But if they have a bad experience, they won’t just stay away — they are likely to tweet, blog and Yelp about you, so that thousands of other potential customers won’t even give you a chance.

Never before have small-business owners been so vulnerable to reputation damage. People who may not be honest, or even sane, can sign onto their computers to rate a firm’s performance and bellow its alleged flaws to thousands of others by digital word of mouth. In a matter of months, a company’s customer base and profits can dive if enough electronic badmouths decide to shout online, making accusations about poor service, products or practices. Even a business that gets just a few reviews — all good — can go downhill if its closest competitors have a stronger online presence, offer better digital deals or receive dozens more raves on social media and review sites.
 
“Since the advent of Yelp, Foursquare and other review-driven sites, our members voice increasing concerns that their competitors and others are using those sites to slam businesses without provocation,” says Paul Little, president and CEO of the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce.

So what’s a small-business owner to do?
Little says the Pasadena Chamber has just started an online course for its members, explaining how to respond to bad reviews and maximize their business’ online activity. But taking a course on all this isn’t really necessary, most experts say. And combating bad reviews is not the total fix. If a business offers a great product or service at appropriate prices and is still failing to grow, there are easily acquired online strategies that can help turn the tide — and most cost zero or next to nothing. The Internet can be a business owner’s best ally, a force for good and for growth.
 
First, the basics: Every business owner must monitor sites that review his or her company. You need to know on a daily basis exactly who’s talking about you and what they’re saying, experts advise. Just go to google.com and click on “alert.” Enter your business name and (if desired) your own name. Anytime your business is mentioned you’ll get an online alert. It’s free. We’ll discuss how to deal with bad reviews later.
 
Your website: Most small businesses have websites with information about the firm and its offerings. But that’s not enough, experts say. A website is like a garden. It must be nourished and maintained on an almost daily basis. It should be vibrant, attractive, interactive. “Your website is where people search for information about you, where they get their first impression,” says small business guru Rieve Lesonsky, formerly the editor-in-chief of Entrepreneur magazine. She and other experts agree that a website should have pizzazz — tell who you are, how you got started, why you love what you do and how your product or service is special. It should have great visuals of the owners, perhaps the storefront and products, if appropriate. It can offer “specials,” deals designed to lead potential customers to try you out. A website should feature or link to the owner’s blog and tweets (more about that below). Be creative. Even a business with nothing but service to sell — a dry cleaner or an auto repair shop, for example — can sing out tantalizing tidbits and/or photos about unusual work recently done, seasonal handy hints and comments from satisfied customers.

A website should not be ho-hum.
Once you have a site you’re proud of, make sure it’s mobile-ready. The numbers of people searching on cellphones and tablets is growing exponentially, experts say. “Most small-business owners have no idea how important mobile devices have become in consumer searches,” Lesonsky explains, “and it’s only going to increase in future. If your website doesn’t show up well on mobile devices, you’re putting your business at a big disadvantage. And an update doesn’t have to cost much. Just use a site like gomobi.com,” she says.
 
Social media: Every small-business owner should have a social media presence, experts advise. Use it to incentivize current customers with special offers, while earning new ones. Do you tweet? Twitter shows up in studies as the best way to build a business, whereas Facebook is more helpful for maintaining customers you already have. So start a Twitter account, says Lesonsky, and tell customers to follow you on Twitter because you tweet out random promotions and special deals for your followers. If you’re a florist, you might offer a percentage off or a few extra blooms to those who mention your Twitter account. If you own a restaurant and you’re having a slow night, you might tweet a special price for that night, for Twitter followers only. “All this has been proven to work,” Lesonsky says.

It’s also helpful to blog about your business activities, business-related hobbies and new products and services, as they arrive. Your blog can entertain, inform and show photos. You say you’re not a writer? Not to worry. Just think of all the questions customers ask on a daily basis and how you answer them. Think of all the free hints you offer. Take note of discussions you have, or anecdotes that kept you and your employees in stitches. Then blog about those same answers or ideas. If you have a tech-savvy employee or family member who can maintain your online presence according to your instructions, you might offer a bonus for them to do so.

It’s all about creating good word of mouth through your existing customers by staying close to and empowering them. If you’ve made a special price offer in tweets, email or your website, they’re likely to tell others. You don’t have to do all these things at one time. Step in slowly and eventually you’ll build your online presence organically, which can lead to better bottom-line results.
 
Online advertising: Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, experts say. “It doesn’t cost a lot for an ad on Facebook; in fact, it’s really cheap and you can localize it,” Lesonsky says. But if you have a very small budget, spend it on Google, she adds, because you’ll come up higher in the rankings. “Be sure to provide new information on your website three times a week, so you organically rise in the rankings as well. You can’t buy your way there cheaply or quickly — it’s a building process.”
 
And now about those bad reviews. Disparaging comments on popular sites like Yelp and Foursquare need to be dealt with immediately, Lesonsky and Little say. “You have to be proactive. Cut it off before it gets out of hand,” Lesonsky adds. She and Little tell business owners to monitor comments two or three times daily, and their quick response should always be polite, no matter how ugly the criticism. “Never respond in a way that’s combative, defensive or rude. Never attack a customer or dispute a bad review even if you think it is wrong and unfair. Remember, you are answering your critic in public,” Lesonsky says. “Your goal is to let the public know you’ve reacted politely and right away.”

Both advise business owners to answer bad reviews with something like “I’m sorry you had a bad experience. I’d really like to see what we can do to make it better and more positive.” Once you show you’re responding, you can take any further correspondence offline, out of public view, and try to resolve it as best you can.

Little says he advises businesses to “do the same thing with online critics they’d do with customers face to face. Try to figure out what you can do for that person to make his or her opinion and memory of you more positive. We’ve all had experiences where the dry cleaner breaks or loses buttons, or a restaurant meal arrives undercooked. The business owner tailors his response to the situation. Offer to replace the buttons or offer a free meal, drink or dessert. Make them feel they’ve been well taken care of. The last thing any business owner wants is a customer who spreads bad word.”

And here’s the good news about reviews: All experts agree there’s no way to truly game the system with fake good or bad reviews. Consumers have become too sophisticated. They can often intuit when reviews are insincere or malicious or both. They can also gauge which businesses seem more popular because they offer great products or service. If an owner runs his business right, builds his online presence and offers customers what they want, the good reviews will follow, experts say. Boomers are less likely to go online immediately with a review, recent studies show, but millenials live by the Internet. It’s almost second nature for them to tweet, blog or Facebook about any very good or bad experience they’ve had.

Perhaps most important, business owners should understand and accept reviews for what they really are: free market research. Just a few years ago, a firm would have had to pay thousands to get instant feedback from their customers. Nowadays it doesn’t cost a cent. Indeed, Lesonsky says, bad reviews are often helpful: “If you get a whole slew of reviews that say your French fries are bad, or a particular server is rude, or your repair shop has ripped them off, then maybe it’s a legitimate issue you ought to take care of.”

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