April 9, 2010
Liz published this at 9:31 am
A Guest Post by Shama Kabani
When someone calls my company for the first time, there’s a high probability that what triggered the phone call is a negative consumer-written review or blog posting that shows up first in search engine rankings for their business.
Usually, they want to know how we can make the negative review go away – right now. It’s a shock when I say that the search engine ‘bots can’t distinguish between a snarky teenager in Des Moines, a competitor in Dallas, and a thoughtful reviewer in Dubuque. The truth is that social media has given a voice to anyone who wants to attack your business, and there are people out there who seem to revel in attacking for any reason – or no reason at all.
Sometimes the negative complaints are valid, and sometimes they’re not. So if you’re getting bashed in an online forum, the first rule is to respond to the negative consumer-generated review publicly, honestly, and as quickly as possible. Don’t even think about creating an alias to respond to a negative online posting. You will get caught, and it will cause more damage to your reputation. Here’s what I tell anyone who is wondering how to handle a negative online review:
- Check the facts. Is this person a customer? A former or current employee? A competitor spreading rumor?
- Follow your mother’s advice. Mind your manners, and if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Online mudslinging never helps. If someone is posting personal slurs, be sure that YOU stay on the high road – don’t sink to their level.
- Rally the troops: encourage friends and satisfied customers or clients to post positive reviews.
a. Once you know the facts, offer to resolve any issues personally, via email or telephone. (This requires the company owner, or a senior manager.)
b. Continue the discussion offline if possible – then, once it is resolved, go back to the site where the negative review was posted, and post an honest explanation of what was done to rectify the issue.
c. If you can’t identify the person, and you are not sure the complaint is valid, post your policy on the subject, and offer to resolve the issue.
Not long ago, after a speech to a business group, a man told me how he had put my advice to work. It’s a perfect example of what I call the Zen way of handling this kind of issue.
“I wanted to tell you how I resolved a problem I was having with a really bad online review on Yelp about my business. Someone – I never did figure out who – posted a terrible review – and that was the first thing people saw when they did a Google search on our company name.
“So I got my own Yelp account. I used my own name, and identified myself as the owner of the store. I basically said, ‘I’m saddened that you had a bad experience in my store. I’ve checked my records, and I can’t find a transaction that sounds like this. Please call me at this number, so that I can resolve this issue immediately.’ No one called, so a few weeks later I posted a second reply that said, ‘I haven’t heard from you. Please call me. I want the chance to make you a happy customer.’
“I used my real name, our store name, and posted the store phone number. At the same time, when I would talk to a satisfied customer, I’d say, ‘I’d appreciate it if you’d consider telling other people that you had a positive experience.’ I even put a request for positive Yelp reviews onto the receipts we give to customers. That first terrible review is still out there – but now there are more positive reviews, and the search engines don’t pick that bad review up first.”
One question that comes up often from frustrated small business owners is what to do if you find out about a negative comment that has “gone viral” (when one original negative message has been picked up far and wide, and a small problem has spread all over the Internet). Again, the action you should take depends on whether or not the negatives are true.
Products break. Employees don’t follow policy. Bad things happen to good companies – and they survive. The key to recovery is an honest response to the problem that explains what happened, and why it won’t happen again. If the problem isn’t simple, or if it wasn’t an isolated occurrence, consider hiring a crisis communication expert with specific online experience.
If it’s not true, politely request that the blog, forum, or site owner remove or retract the untrue information — or at least publish your response. Work with a search engine optimization (SEO) consultant to help you move positive information towards the top of search-engine rankings.
In very rare cases, business owners can seek legal help – libel laws do apply to online media. This is a last resort, and should be considered only in a very extreme case. First, it’s difficult and expensive because of the many steps required to identify the individual who posted the negative information.
More importantly, you can be sure that the minute a letter arrives from the lawyer, the news of “the big bad company” coming after “the poor citizen journalist” will be spread far and wide, further damaging your reputation. I can think of very few occasions when legal action has helped resolve this kind of problem, but being married to an attorney, I leave this question open, and welcome any feedback from someone who has successfully used legal action in this kind of situation.
Becoming an active part of the conversation that is already taking place among your customers, employees, prospects, and competitors is the best way to prevent negative comments from taking over your online reputation. This is especially critical for professional service businesses, where the company’s inventory and the company’s reputation are one and the same.
Take advantage of the free tools available to monitor your company’s online reputation. Start by signing up for Google and Yahoo email alerts using your company name, product name, and the names of key executives Yahoo Alerts and google alerts. Look at other tools like Ice Rocket, Monitor This, PubSub, and Blog Pulse.
While you’re figuring out where the conversation about your business and your competitors is taking place, establish a policy on how you are going to handle your part of the ongoing conversation. Who will speak for your company? How are you going to encourage satisfied customers and friends to speak positively about you?
It’s no longer a question of whether or not social media is going to affect your business – it already is. So the only question is when are you going to take charge of your own online reputation?
Thanks, Shama! I find that the more we include folks in what we’re doing online from the start, the more we invite them to help us as we build our presence and our sites, the more we find they help us when those negative occasions crop up.
How do you handle negative remarks and comments when you find them online?
–ME “Liz” Strauss
Work with Liz on your business!!