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Dealing with Online Reviews of Your Company: Protecting Your Brand’s Reputation in Social Media

Written by  Michael Schaffer

07-OnlineReviews-1

 

While a large number of industries have embraced social media and use it daily, many professional cleaning companies are still struggling to implement the new technology or even understand how it impacts their businesses.

Social media has proven to be an effective marketing tool in business-to-consumer (B2C) relationships, and an argument could perhaps still be made about its effectiveness in business-to-business marketing (B2B). That isn’t to suggest, however, that B2B firms can afford to ignore it. On the contrary, websites, such as Angie's List, Yelp, Yahoo! Local, Google Places, Kudzu, CitySearch, and others that allow individuals to post reviews about companies, products, and services, should prove noteworthy to even the most skeptical social-media doubters.

Customer Comments

Businesses have always welcomed positive comments from customers regarding their products or services. Frustration enters the equation when someone is unhappy with a product or service. There used to be a saying that “If you do a great job, your customers will tell nine people. But do a poor job, and they'll tell 22 people.” Today, however, a negative review posted online can reach millions of people.

What should businesses do when someone posts a negative online review of one of their products or services? What if the comment is unfair, inaccurate, or plain wrong? And how much effect does a poor review have on other consumers and end customers? These are all questions that businesses need to address.

Social Media and Building Service Contractors

One of the major challenges building service contractors face is that while advancements have been made to better define or measure “cleanliness,” these definitions are still primarily appearance-based, which makes them subjective. Yet a single poor online review can have a significant impact on a building service contractor. Even the highest quality, most prudent cleaning contractor may still not satisfy some customers—and what if those are the ones that express their opinions on social media? The following guidelines should help businesses address online reviews.

Fact or Fake?

Online social media users have become a pretty savvy bunch. For example, many view glowing restaurant reviews with skepticism. If reviews seem overly positive, many social media users suspect that the restaurant owners and their staff, friends, and family may be posting the reviews themselves.

However, did you know that there are fake negative reviews as well? For instance, there are numerous cases of competitors posting negative reviews on social media about another company, product, or service. Interestingly, a new study released by Northwestern University and MIT’s Sloan School of Management finds that competitors are not the only source of fake negative reviews.

This study analyzed 325,000 product reviews—both positive and negative—from an unnamed apparel company’s website. The study's authors discovered that for 16,000 of these reviews—almost all of which were negative—there was no evidence that the reviewers had actually purchased the product being discussed, despite the fact that the reviewers explicitly said they had.

Further, the study pointed out something quite unexpected. Many of the 16,000 negative reviews were from people that had purchased other apparel items from this company, but as mentioned earlier, not the specific product being reviewed. So why were these former customers being so negative? The study concluded that these individuals saw themselves as “self-appointed brand managers” who wanted to influence the company in one direction or another.

The apparel manufacturer was so alarmed by this finding that it now attempts to verify that all reviews, good or bad, are from customers that have in fact purchased the product being reviewed. Along with this verification process, the company is also developing ways to give customers easier, and hopefully more positive ways, to serve as self-appointed brand managers.

Additionally, the study also answered our earlier question regarding how much effect reviews have on a company or its products. These researchers, along with nearly all other researchers that have studied this issue, agree that reviews can influence buying decisions. However, the conclusion of this study was that savvy social media users should never place full faith and trust in online reviews.

Responding to Negative Reviews

Whether there are “self-appointed brand managers” in the professional cleaning world is open to debate. However, we do know that some organizations in our industry have been the subject of negative reviews at one time or another, some more frequently than others. Further, most of us would agree these negative reviews could possibly sway a customer making a purchasing decision.

The first step in dealing with online reviews is to know when they happen. There are Web marketing and “reputation management” firms that track each instance of a company or product being reviewed online, along with what is being said. Some companies also use alerts provided by various search engines that let them know when someone posts a review. Whatever method is chosen, all modern companies must pay attention and keep track of what is being said about them online.

As to the question of how to respond to a negative review, much depends on the company. According to a 2010 study by Michael Luca of the Harvard Business School, the impact of reviews depends very much on the company’s overall reputation with consumers. For companies with firmly established positive reputations, glowing reviews just add to their favorable status, while negative reviews may prove ineffective, possibly even drawing ire toward the reviewer rather than the company or product being reviewed.*

However, even companies with strong positive reputations usually have some strategy for dealing with negative online comments. These strategies, which can be applied to all types of businesses, include:

Doing nothing: Some very large companies, such as big consumer electronics firms, simply cannot cope with the hundreds, if not thousands, of reviews that are posted regarding their products. They may look for trends (for instance, when a product seems to be receiving a large number of negative comments) and open an investigation, but other than that, they simply accept reviews, both positive and negative, as a fact of doing business. The smaller the business, however, the less a “do nothing” strategy is recommended.

Responding to all reviews: Some companies have instituted policies mandating that they respond to all reviews, good or bad. Often they do this to show reviewers, potential consumers, and end customers that they are paying attention and want to know what others think of their company, product, or service.

Dealing with legitimate negative reviews only: If the review is warranted and legitimate, many organizations have found it worthwhile to apologize publicly online and indicate that a company representative will contact the reviewer to correct the problem. Follow through is the most important aspect of this strategy—the company must indeed contact the reviewer and correct the problem. Very often, these initial problems turn into opportunities for companies. When the problem is corrected to the reviewer’s satisfaction, reviewers frequently become loyal customers and express their satisfaction other online postings. (Be sure to ask the now-happy customer to express his or her happiness online with a new review.)

Responding only to unwarranted negative reviews: One local company in the heating and air conditioning industry found that a customer had posted several negative comments about the company on Yelp. It turned out that the reviewer (who used a fake name) was unhappy because the company would not give that person a discount. In this case, the company went directly to Yelp and proved its case, and Yelp removed the posting. However, while Yelp and other sites employ filters to capture suspected fake reviews, removing postings from some online services can prove difficult. In such situations, it is often best for the company being criticized to respond honestly to the negative review and present its side of the story.

Taking legal action: Generally, federal regulations protect online review sites from liability resulting from the actions of site users. But depending upon the state, claims made by an actual reviewer may be subject to defamation or other charges. While there isn’t a great deal of case law or legal precedent involving this issue as yet, there have been several well-publicized cases over the past few years.

Forging Ahead

Online reviews may continue to make companies across all industries cringe, but in most cases, companies should try to view them as opportunities. After all, the overwhelming majority are likely from honest people who want to express their view about a product or service. This gives the company an opportunity to have a dialogue with its consumers. In fact, experts consider this type of dialogue to be one of the biggest opportunities social media offers businesses.

Companies have to accept the fact that in today’s online world, they are almost certain to get some negative comments online. If the reviews are legitimate and the organization has the resources, they should respond apologetically and try to correct the problem. If the review is not legitimate, businesses should consider trying to add their point of view to the discussion.

Organizations in the professional cleaning industry must develop strategies regarding how to handle comments about their companies, products, or services. Even if the strategy is to not respond, not paying attention is the worst thing you can do.

*This study involved 20 million reviews of restaurants and other companies on Yelp.com between 2003 and 2009.

Michael Schaffer is a senior executive with Tacony’s Commercial Floor Care division. He is also President of Tornado Industries®, which manufacturers a full line of professional cleaning equipment including CFR® brand carpet extractors, which recycle water and cleaning solution.

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