It used to be that a retailer built a solid reputation with quality merchandise, friendly service and a charming smile. Today’s world is more complicated. Customers are sharing their good and bad shopping experiences on internet review sites such as Yelp, Google and Angie’s List, and on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. The power to polish or tarnish a business image has largely been handed over to a horde of faceless reporters.
“Online comments will become increasingly important to retailers because of the growing power of social media,” says Daniel Burrus, a business consultant based in Wisconsin. “As a business image builder, the use of social media is a ‘hard trend’ that will become more prevalent.”
The “social” part of that trend, says Burrus, carries the payload. “We humans are social beings. When a technology satisfies that need, a revolution is created.” Smartphones, in particular, give customers the power to broadcast a shopping experience instantly to friends and strangers alike.
To survive in this ever-expanding environment, retailers need to monitor and improve their online reputation even if they don’t sell merchandise on the web. “Prospects will search for reports about your store online even if you are an offline business,” cautions Andy Beal, a North Carolina-based consultant. “They will look to see what previous customers have reported.” And the stakes are high: Positive reviews and comments attract more customers. Negative ones can be the kiss of death.
If all this makes the online world seem like a scary monster, take heart: Tobacconists can bridle the internet beast and turn its power to their advantage. “Many people don’t think of their online presence as something that can be monitored and built,” says Hersh Davis-Nitzberg, a California-based consultant. In fact, he says, a carefully designed image improvement plan can raise your profile as a quality retailer.
How? Davis-Nitzberg suggests letting a few key principles guide your actions.
The first is to realize that building a great reputation means more than responding appropriately to negative reviews. “You need to do more than just repair damage that is done online,” he says. “You also need to create a positive image for your brand.”
Before you do either, you need to decide which review sites and social media to monitor. The internet is huge, and trying to keep an eye on too many possibilities will be counterproductive. “You need to understand your centers of influence,” says Beal. “Where is your target audience? Where do they hang out online and directly discuss your business? Don’t just assume the answer is Facebook and Twitter. Maybe people are going to Yelp, or Angie’s List, or a special forum.”
One way to find out the answer is to use Google to search for your business name or industry keywords, says Beal. “The most active communities will show up higher on the results. You can also search your competitors’ names to find out where they are focusing their efforts.”
And remember not to ignore the customers right in front of you. Survey them. Ask them what internet sites they go to for trusted information about retailers.
Eliminate the negative
Mention social media to most retailers and the first thing they’ll relate is a negative review horror story. No one seems immune from the damage a disgruntled customer can do with a Yelp comment or a Twitterverse broadcast. Bad reviews happen, however; it is the reality for any retailer. What should you do?
Avoid the temptation to ignore the negative review. A lack of response makes a terrible impression on the public. People will think that retailer does not care about taking care of customer problems. At the same time, avoid a knee-jerk response. “If you get a negative review, do not start an argument online,” advises Michael Fertik, executive chairman of reputation.com. “Pause and take a breath. Analyze the review before taking action.”
Fertik suggests beginning with an assessment of the quality of the review. Is it written in all caps and filled with exclamation points? People are likely to discount the poster as a dubious source of information, especially if the review is the only negative one of a dozen others. In such a case you might post a reasonable response such as, “Thank you for your feedback. We are taking steps to resolve this issue.” A simple response like that one will communicate your concern to other customers reading the reviews without raising undue hopes that you will be able to mollify a crank.
What if the review is written in a thoughtful manner, with a reasoned analysis of the purchase event being assessed? Readers are likely to take it more seriously, and you will want to spend more time responding. Burrus suggests starting with a statement such as this: “We are very sorry that you had a bad experience at our store. We want to make every effort to make things right.” With these words you show you are on their side rather than an adversary.
Next, says Burrus, invite the customer to invest in a solution with words such as these:
“What would it take to make you happy?” This throws the ball into the customer’s court and invites a response that will provide you with valuable insight into how to resolve a sticky situation. “The words ‘What would it take?’ are the magic ones,” says Burrus. “Let the customer tell you.”
The customer’s request may be for much less than you might think. Very often, says Burrus, all the complaining customer wants is an acknowledgment that a complaint is justified, that a transaction did not go off as planned. “People really want to be heard,” says Burrus. “So instead of protecting your point of view, agree with them.”
If the original review was a thoughtful and carefully written one, the customer will likely respond with a reasonable request. Agree to what the customer asks and post instructions on how the customer can participate in resolving the matter. If the request is unreasonable, post a thoughtful alternative. Keep negotiating with the customer until the matter is resolved.
And now the best news of all: Reviews can be changed. “When you respond to negative reviewers from a customer service perspective, they can turn into your best advocates,” says Davis-Nitzberg. “They can change information they have put on the web by stating, in effect, ‘This company reached out and changed their business practices to better address the issues we had.’” That endorsement can take the form of a follow-up post that the reviewer makes in the thread in which you have participated.
Also, to enhance the positives, consider creating a page on your website that contains a dozen or so glowing reviews. Then, when a review on a public site seems unreasonable, you can post a link to your assembled quotes, along with the words, “Here is a link to a dozen of our customers who have appreciated our service.”