Will your failed effort to repair your online reputation sink your business?

Stories about bad (and occasionally good) reputation management efforts have become all too common. Still, businesses often don’t get it. You can run, but you can’t hide! You can’t avoid the impact to your reputation by staying away from social media – you just don’t know what’s being said about you (whether positive or negative). We all make mistakes, so the best thing to do is plan how to deal with them. Three recent situations illustrate all three types of reputation problems, and make good lessons on how to (or how not to) deal with them. Disaster looms - Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/unconstructive_bry

The lessons from these stories apply to businesses in any industry, whether large multinationals or small, local businesses.

The Bad

This is kind of a double lesson.

Part 1: First, 7-Eleven posted a joke on their Facebook page that was mildly unkind to mental health. Not a very politically correct thing to do. Especially since this didn’t just show up for a few people, but to the over 700,000 people who “Like” their page. They deleted the post, but that didn’t stop people from talking about it on their Facebook page. No doubt the post was largely unnoticed due to the attention of the news media being captured by the disclosure of the killing of Osama bin Laden. If it had attracted a lot of attention, it could have been a PR nightmare.

Part 2: Next Peter Shankman posted about the 7-Eleven post, commenting about its being in poor taste and pointing out that 7-Eleven may have dodged a bullet because “Monday happened to be a very active news day”. Shankman was criticized by some of his readers as being too “politically correct”, and so posted a follow-up the next day, explaining what he meant, and giving suggestions for the use of humor in your posts. Shankman’s follow-up explanation clearly helped him avoid further criticism.

Even if you found the 7-Eleven post funny, it doesn’t mean that your audience will agree. Even if you disapprove of the post, it doesn’t mean that your audience will agree. Peter Shankman’s advice is good advice – if you have to ask yourself if something would be appropriate, it probably isn’t.

Lessons:

  • Be careful (of course!) not to make mistakes, but realize you can’t always anticipate how something will come across
  • Know your audience! You are not just chatting with friends, but posting where hundreds, thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of your customers may see it!
  • Realize that your sense of humor may be different than someone else’s, so give yourself a reality check! If you have to ask if something is appropriate, it probably isn’t.
  • Ask yourself how this will make your brand look
  • Deal with any negative fallout appropriately, and move on

The Ugly

A friend who has many talents, chef, blogger, graphic designer, consultant, to name a few, Heather Turner, recently blogged about her experience with a local fish market. Heather was gracious enough not to mention their name. The post is lengthy, but well worth reading. For the short version, here is my summary:

Heather bought unusually large lobsters for a special occasion, but when she cracked them open, the amount of meat was not just surprisingly small (as a chef, Heather understands, as we do in Maine, that what is inside the lobster is often less than you would guess from the size of the lobster), but very, very, inappropriately small. Heather didn’t expect compensation, but thought the market would want to know about this, so she attempted to contact the fish market, initially without success. She then posted a quick comment on their Facebook wall. The market responded, denying any knowledge of her earlier attempts and asking her to submit information via their web form, which she did.

Heather received an email reply, in essence saying she should understand that there is less meat than shell to a lobster (well, duh!) and they wouldn’t give her a refund (which she had not requested). Heather replied via email and received a call from the family who owned the business, saying they would replace the lobsters for her, and the staff would be notified.

When another special occasion arrived, Heather went to the market to get the replacement lobsters, and was treated rudely and refused the lobsters. She posted a comment on their Facebook page, which they deleted. When she posted another, she was banned from their page.

Wow! Where to begin? This episode is like a crash course in how not to handle customer relationships!

Lessons:

  • Even before there was an internet, there was a concept of customer relationships – remember? The customer is always right (OK, they’re not always right, but if you start with that principle, you’re likely to have more customers!).
  • Putting your head in the sand doesn’t make the world disappear! It just makes you think it did.
  • Just because you deleted the Facebook post, or even banned the user from your page, doesn’t end it! Customers have blogs. Customers have Twitter accounts. Customers have Foursquare accounts. Customers have… You can’t ban them all!
  • A company can do a lot more to protect its reputation by responding openly and honestly to criticism (especially criticism that is justified) than by pretending the problem doesn’t exist. People understand that you’re not perfect, but they also see how you deal with problems and make buying decisions based on your handling of them.
  • As Heather points out at the start of her blog post, This is a perfect example of an excellent post that came out recently: A Better Business Doctrine – Part 1: A**holes are bad for business which should be required reading for businesses.

The Good

Many posts have been written (as a search for online reputation management will disclose) about disasters, and suggesting ways to deal with them. The best advice usually includes

  1. Admit your mistakes
  2. Promise to be better
  3. If appropriate, offer some type of compensation or incentive to return.

Sometimes, however, the customer is wrong. Then the advice is a little bit different.

Michael Gray recently posted a story about a restaurant that received a scathingly critical review, which went too far. Not only did the author (apparently) omit facts that would give a very different view of the circumstances, but decided that a personal attack on the hostess (who was actually the owner) was also called for.

As Gray observes – the restaurant could have ignored the review, but that would have been a mistake, as it would be out there for future customers to see. While many would take the personal criticism with a grain of salt, the apparently objective statements about the service, attitude, etc., would likely have cost the restaurant business. This owner did exactly the right thing.

  • She responded and pointed out that she was the hostess and the owner
  • She mentioned the important facts the reviewer had omitted, such as his own late arrival for his reservation, how small the restaurant was, how the seating policy had been explained to the person booking the reservation and acknowledged by them.
  • She said she was “sorry [he] felt the need to personally attack [her]” and suggested it was best for everyone that the reviewer had sworn never to return.

Lessons:

  • Monitor your reputation – you can’t avoid bad reviews (and you won’t know about the good ones) if you’re not in the game
  • Respond to negative reviews – if there is no response the next reader will assume either it is true, or you don’t care; neither is good for you
  • Know when to fold ’em – Don’t use the response to argue with a customer. If they are right, say so. If not, nicely take the high road and point out things they haven’t mentioned that show things in a better light. In any case, don’t prolong the painful discussion.
  • Even one small, unhappy, voice can cause a huge reputation problem, especially if that one small voice posts on a blog, Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, TripAdvisor, LinkedIn, Yelp, or any one (or perhaps several) of the multitude of online sites that allow conversations, comments or reviews. If others pick up the complaint, it will be your worst nightmare.
  • If you’re not sure, then the customer is right
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