Contributed Column

All About IT

by John Burton, NPI

The risky business of online reputation

Vermont has the reputation of being a word-of-mouth state. Before the Internet, customer feedback traveled slowly and often remained local. Now a company’s reputation travels worldwide in an instant with the increased likelihood of containing damaging misinformation.

Like it or not, your clients are talking about you, and because the Internet acts as a lens magnifying customer experiences, your reputation can be at risk. Recently, a key supplier for a Vermont-based military component firm was fined for security infractions. Due to this loss of reputation it lost most of its customers within days of the news hitting the Web. Unfortunately this can quickly happen to almost any business today.

Suggestions for managing the online perception of your company

• Identify the main factors impacting your online reputation and work to improve them. Think before you put anything out on the Web. Remember that, once posted, data is stored forever. What happens on the Internet stays on the Internet.

• Use permission-based marketing tools and tone down your message by providing useful tips rather than sales pitches. Verify that your listing is complete on local search sites to get good search results.

• Regularly search your company, product name, and key employees to assess how the public views your reputation. Anonymous postings can shape perceived attitudes — whether true or false. Initiate automatic alerts for new online comments. Always take a deep breath before responding to a hostile critic. If the facts are wrong answer politely with the correct information.

• Rather than focusing on removing negative comments, ask your satisfied customers to post positive reviews thus pushing the others down to other pages. Respond to comments within 24 hours and provide any needed remedy. Don’t be tempted to write false reviews or make comments about your competition because your reputation can be severely damaged if discovered.

• Regularly monitor websites popular to your sales demographic. These sites may include Yelp, Citysearch, Yahoo!, Local, Google Maps, Angie’s list, Open Table, and Epinions. Include Glassdoor to see what your employees are saying about you. Look to companies such as Reputation.com and InternetReputation.com to track and remove comments and reviews. Or use free options included with Twitter, Google Alerts, and Naymz.

Trends in negative comments may mean there are significant issues occurring so make sure your good intentions come through in the reply. If you have a store, install a laptop by the front door to make it as easy as possible for customers to review your business. A Burlington area restaurant recently replied to a negative Yelp review by posting, “It doesn’t always work the way we plan it, but we try awful hard to make amends when things happen. Thanks for noticing.”

Staying in touch with customers after the sale has become as important as the original transaction. Reach out for feedback within 24 hours of a purchase to increase customer participation. I recently signed up for the King Arthur Flour frequent shopper card at the Norwich store and immediately got an email on my iPad enticing me to have a free cup of coffee in the cafe. As expected, I also bought a tasty pastry as well. To help customers see your business in a positive light, promote the postings by sharing good reviews on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.

We live in an age of social buying which makes online customer reviews increasingly influential. Because this puts customers in the driver’s seat, it is up to the business to wrest back control of the steering wheel. With a focus on good service, great products, and business integrity, your online army of “secret shoppers” will sincerely notice.

John Burton is a co-founder of NPI — a technology management company in South Burlington. www.npi.net.

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