Businesses today can't afford to have a negative online reputation.
In today's digital environment, businesses are at a disadvantage when it comes to managing their brand's reputation. Faced with an avalanche of customer feedback on countless channels, they need a comprehensive reputation management strategy to succeed.
Back when business marketing consisted mostly of advertising campaigns, public relations efforts, and encouraging word-of-mouth spread of a brand message, the concept of reputation management was simple. All that was required was for a company to be proficient at responding rapidly to the first hint of any public complaint about its products or services. And since television and print media offered platforms with greater power and reach than anything an aggrieved customer could access, businesses always had the upper hand.
In the age of the internet, all of that's changed. Today, a single angry customer can spark a reputation crisis for a business with nothing more than a smartphone and a social media account. And for businesses, the act of responding to unhappy customers itself can be a minefield. The recent past is littered with examples of businesses that have failed miserably at it.
And angry customers aren't the only potential problem. Businesses themselves also have to be far more careful about the messaging they're putting out into the public domain. With multiple social platforms, advertising initiatives, and content creation efforts underway at once – it doesn't take much for a poorly-thought-out bit of copy to do grievous damage to a brand.
This dynamic shift has meant that businesses of all shapes and sizes have to devote far more resources to the task of managing their brand's reputation online. But it's not as easy as just setting up a rapid-response team. There's a lot more planning and forethought required. To help small businesses do it, here's a step-by-step guide to creating a successful reputation management plan.
The most important keys to reputation management
Before getting into the steps businesses need to undertake to create a reputation management process, it's useful for them to first understand the central tenets of the art and science of reputation management. And make no mistake – reputation management is a bit of both. So, before beginning to craft a plan, businesses need to make sure that their every effort conforms to the following themes:
Trust-building is essential: Taking the time to build solid trust relationships with consumers and the community is the foundation for all reputation management strategies. With those foundations in place, it's far easier to refute negative information and to secure the benefit of the doubt when there's a real issue to deal with.
Expect scrutiny: Understand that every action the business undertakes – even in private – might someday become part of the public record. So, behave internally and externally in a respectful, defensible way.
Positive reputation is earned: While some reputation management firms will try to sell the idea that businesses can manufacture a positive brand reputation, the truth is, they cannot.
Elevate core values: When a crisis strikes, it's essential to act in a manner consistent with the company's core values. Doing otherwise might satisfy a single angry customer, but undermine everything else the business has worked to create.
Creating a reputation management plan
With an understanding of the keys to successful reputation management in mind, it's time to proceed to build a reputation management plan. Here are the steps businesses need to take:
Step one: Create a monitoring program
The first step in any reputation management plan is also the most important. It's getting the business set up to listen to what customers and the general public are saying about their brand. And doing so isn't as simple as it might sound. It requires a comprehensive approach that includes monitoring a variety of online review sites as well as several social media channels.
Since no two businesses are alike, it's important to begin this process by identifying what review sites and platforms are relevant to the business. For example, restaurants and service providers might begin with Yelp, HomeAdvisor, and Angie's List. On the other hand, retailers might be more concerned with sites like Trustpilot and Google My Business.
According to online review statistics provided by PickHVAC, 94% of consumers report that a negative online review has convinced them to avoid a business – so it's critical to understand where your customers tend to leave feedback. Missing even a single major source of reviews can negate much of the reputation management efforts that make up the rest of the plan.
On the social media front, a two-pronged approach is necessary. First, the business must have a presence on all of the major social platforms. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram make for a good start. But don't hesitate to survey customers to find out where they congregate. There are a variety of other platforms that may be relevant, depending on the circumstances.
Once all of the initial legwork is done, the next step is to designate an employee – or more than one if the business's online footprint is large – to monitor the identified channels. It's a good idea to deploy some automation in the form of a reputation management platform to aggregate the feedback into a single location. And since there are often too many social channels to monitor in real-time, it's also a good idea to turn to a social media management platform that offers sentiment analysis. That way, whoever's handling the monitoring will know immediately if there's any kind of reputation crisis brewing.
Step two: Define an engagement and response framework
Once the infrastructure's in place to hear what customers and the public are saying about the business, the next step is formalizing the process to respond to what you're hearing. For positive feedback, create some guidelines on how to thank customers for their kind words. This doesn't require canned responses – those come across as inauthentic and are counterproductive. Simply come up with some common language standards and empower the employee handling the task to respond accordingly.
And since some customer feedback is bound to require detailed responses that might fall outside of the expertise of the person doing the monitoring, create an escalation chart that instructs them on who to turn to when an expert answer is required. Most often, the right people will be customer service leads, product specialists, and management-level employees. Knowing who to turn to in advance will improve response times, which is a critical aspect of successful reputation management.
Step three: Prioritize responding to negative reviews and comments
Since the hardest part of reputation management is keeping small problems from turning into big ones, the focus of the framework outlined in step two must be on responding to negative reviews and social media posts. There are a few ways to go about doing this, but according to experts like Michael Fertik, the basics are:
Thanking the reviewer or social user for their feedback
Making it clear to them that the business values them, understand the problem, and intends to make it right
Apologizing for not meeting expectations
Attempting to move the conversation offline
Among those, it's the last one that is most crucial for the business. Getting the reviewer or social media user to discuss their concerns offline can prevent what could be a minor customer issue from becoming a contentious one in full public view. But there's a caveat. It's just as important to deal with the customer on their terms, so suggest connecting offline without being pushy. If other people get the impression that you're trying to silence an unhappy customer, that's almost as bad as ignoring their problem in the first place.
And as mentioned earlier, the key to this process is speed. In almost every situation, responding to a negative review or social post within a short period – ideally within no more than a few hours – makes it easier to resolve. Sometimes simply letting the person who left the feedback know that you're listening will make them more receptive to a positive resolution of their issue. This is why the process outlined in step two is so important. If the answers that will solve the issue are close at hand, it's far easier to contain the fallout from a negative review or post.
Step four: Create a business process to make feedback-informed improvements
Although it's an oft-overlooked part of reputation management, the final step in creating a comprehensive plan is to create a business process to facilitate operating changes based on the feedback coming from customers and the public. Failing to do this can jeopardize the entire effort. For example, if potential customers start to see patterns in any negative reviews and posts about a company, the constant problems will speak far louder than anything else. Even if every complaint is resolved in record time, it's just as important to solve whatever's leading to the problem in the first place.
For that reason, the employees monitoring the feedback should have a direct channel to relevant managers so they can report any trends they observe in customer feedback. Beyond that, the managers themselves should make an effort to stay on top of all of the relevant data yielded by the previous processes. The idea is to create a positive feedback loop that turns any negative customer sentiment into an opportunity for the business to refine and improve its practices.
And, for the purposes of building customer trust, this shouldn't be a one-way street. Part of the process you develop should include reaching out to the customers or social media users that inspired whatever changes get made. Don't be afraid to give them credit for helping to make the business better. Not only will they appreciate the shout-out, but other customers will see it as a sign that their voice matters to the business. And that will make other customers far more likely to engage in constructive conversations when they have a problem, rather than to issue scathing reviews or negative social media posts.
With a reputation management plan that accomplishes the four items above in place, any business can stay on top of the many sources of customer feedback that exist online. Even better, they'll have a clear and workable roadmap to ensure that they can handle any situation that comes up, no matter how challenging. And executing the plan will lead to better customer outcomes and help the business to remain responsive and ever-improving. And at the end of the day, that's precisely what positive brand reputations are made of.