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Managing your reputation online

Managing Your Reputation Online – Do you know what your customers are saying about your company online? One Australian company founder spends 10 hours a week reading and responding to online discussions about his company. Sarah Stokely finds out why it’s so important.

Even if you’re not an online business, chances are people have expressed opinions about you and your company online (google yourself if you don’t believe us!). Sometimes disgruntled customers want to vent – type any brand name and the word ‘sucks’ into Google for some colorful examples. The internet marked a revolution in the way companies market their products and interact with customers. Where it used to be enough to broadcast advertising via print, radio, and TV, the internet gave customers a platform to talk back – and talk back they do.

Sometimes entire web communities spring up around a collective need to vent. In fact, a 2008 survey by the US-based Society for New Communications Research (SNCR) found that 59% of people interviewed used social media to vent about customer service.

“There is a growing group of highly desirable consumers using social media to research companies: 25–55 years old, university-educated, earning $100,000+ – a very powerful group in terms of buying behavior,” says Society for Communications Research senior fellow, Dr. Ganim Nora Barnes.

“These savviest and sought-after consumers will not support companies that have poor reputations for customer care, and they will talk about all of this openly with others via multiple online vehicles. This research should serve as a wake-up call to companies: listen, respond and improve.”

The Road Away From Hell

One company that learned the hard way about the power of the online consumer was computer manufacturer Dell. In 2005, it was facing a very public backlash against faulty products and poor customer service. One customer put up a ‘Dell Hell’ website; others chimed in with their own stories on blogs.

The effect of Dell Hell was best summed up by Buzz Machine (buzzmachine.com) blogger Jeff Jarvis, who wrote: “We are in the new era of ‘seller beware’. Now when you screw your customers, your customers can fight back and publish and organize.”

Indeed, the online complaints were loud enough to be picked up by mainstream media, including a story in the US news publication Business Week – ensuring that the bad PR was not limited to people who read blogs.

To its credit, Dell listened, learned, and changed what it was doing. A few years down the track, Dell now takes an active role in managing its online reputation.

One of its responses was IdeaStorm, an interactive website for customers to raise issues and make suggestions for how the company could improve. Vida Killian, the US-based manager of IdeaStorm, says Dell staff can monitor and report frequently occurring requests or problems so they can be dealt with internally.

“We monitor ‘hot issues’ being discussed online (on our forums, blogs, IdeaStorm, and elsewhere online) and manage those via a cross-functional team including product development and services,” she says. “We doubled our product and process updates in the last year by listening to our customers online.”

Dell’s effort to improve its online reputation seems to have paid off. Respondents to the SNCR survey mentioned Dell and Amazon most often when nominating companies that did the best job of using social media to respond to customer care issues.

Creating a buzz

Stepping into an online conversation about your business means opening up a new line of communication with your customer base. It may sound calculated, but you need to decide what you want to achieve, and where to place your online time and energy for the best effect. And don’t forget, happy customers can boost your online reputation by word-of-mouth recommendations.

So how do you harness the good side of social media and get online buzz recommending your company or products? The secret lies in treading the fine line between participating and just using social media as a way to blast out advertising.

“The party analogy can be an effective way of helping to understand the online community,” says Daniel Young, digital practice director for public relations firm Burson-Marsteller. “If you’re rude and disrespectful at a party then it’s likely that others will talk about you behind your back. This is equally true if you fail to bring anything to the party.”

He advises clients to think about how their online engagement can add value for the customers who are reading the site or online service in question.

As an example, one Burson-Marsteller client, recruitment firm Robert Half International publishes a podcast (roberthalfinternational.libsyn.com) aimed at giving clients and job hunters information and advice. This in turn strengthens the company’s overall brand offering.

Responding To Criticism

If you’ve identified a high-profile blog or online community that has influence over your customer base, you may want to respond directly to issues raised on that site, knowing that your target customer base will see you taking action to solve a customer problem.

Deciding to engage in an online conversation about your company can help you learn about problems customers have. It benefits you to take steps to fix the problem and let the customer know.

Of course, it doesn’t always feel positive, especially if people are trashing you and your company online. So how should you respond if people are criticizing your company or product online?

“The first step is to remember to remain calm; try not to reply in an emotional or aggressive way,” says Lukas Picton, an account manager for PR agency Text 100, which offers online reputation evaluation services and advice on community engagement and online conversation strategies.

“If the comments fall within the guidelines of online engagement that you have set, you should reply in a timely, honest and authentic manner.

“And if you don’t have the answers right away, at least advise the person that you are working on their problem and will notify them of the solution once it is resolved.”

A Passionate Advocate

Simon Hackett is the founder and managing director of Internode, a leading Australian internet service provider (ISP). He spends around 10 hours each week personally responding to his customers and readers of the influential broadband discussion forum, whirlpool (whirlpool.net.au).

“Public conversations about a company – any company! – happen on the internet now,” he says. “It happens regardless of whether that company is involved in those conversations, in an authentic and personal manner, or not.”

He attributes his interest in online engagement to the influential book, the Cluetrain manifesto, cluetrain.com.

“Your customers (and staff) are in continual conversation about your organization,” Hackett explains. “Being involved in that conversation, in an open and authentic way, generates enormous credibility, and also provides a conduit for incredibly valuable information and ideas.

“Whirlpool is also an excellent way to detect faults and problems early and correct them before they become a major issue for our customers.”

Reaching influencers

Many companies now woo ‘influencers’, such as prominent bloggers, in the hope that they can get favorable mentions on popular blogs for their products or services.

While some people view Facebook or microblogging website Twitter as toys for the geek minority, many early adopters of these sites are now influencers. For example, the actor and author Stephen Fry have more than 100,000 subscribers to his Twitter feed, which often discusses new tech gadgets. He has such a large online following that a BBC News blog asked, “Can Stephen Fry kill a gadget?” after he publicly poohpoohed the Blackberry Storm smartphone.

Seeding new products to bloggers is a calculated risk – you may get a positive or negative review. Also, the rules are the same as for mainstream media journalists; readers expect to be informed when a blogger has been given items for free or influenced by a company in some way.

Transparency is key, says Nick Broughall, editor of Australia’s most popular technology blog, gizmodo.com.au.

“For me, it’s extremely important that the readers think that the editorial is 100% independent, although you will always get people questioning your opinions,” he says.

People come to tech sites like Gizmodo for news and trusted reviews of new technology. If Broughall praises a lemon, his readers will react.

“If someone does take the time and effort to list their concerns, I’ll take the time and effort to respond, and so far it’s always been successful,” he explains.

“Besides, I’m not that opposed to being questioned – it serves as a reminder that I am in a position of influence.”

Ultimately, choosing to get involved in online communication in an honest way gives you an opportunity to influence your reputation in a positive way, says Hackett. “But don’t do it out of obligation – that comes across as fake. Either do it because you want to or don’t do it at all. It’s not an obligation for me, it’s a passion.” #

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Tips For Improving Your Online Reputation

Daniel Young from international public relations firm Burson-Marsteller shares his top four tips for managing your online reputation:

  • Identify the top 10 most important digital influencers for your organisation – they may be groups, communities, social networks, individual bloggers or forums. Establish a system for monitoring these web properties and seek opportunities to engage in conversation, add value, share information and provide support. Remember that this is about conversations, not selling.
  • Establish a social media monitoring set-up that can track beyond your top 10 on an ongoing basis based on specific key words.
  • Work with an external consultant to develop your digital media strategy based on the insights provided by the above. Identify the most appropriate digital environment for your organisation; it may be a company blog, Facebook or a Twitter account. What can you add to the conversation that has real value?
  • Search is a very important method of raising a brand profile. Google is the dominant search engine in Australia and is the first port of call for many people that seek products and services. Organisations can quickly work out how their corporate website is performing against specific search terms.

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Common Mistakes

When companies are just getting started in engaging customers online, they tend to make similar mistakes. This is usually because the business hasn’t made the time commitment necessary for supporting what boils down to adding another dimension to your customer service division. The most frequent mistakes include:

  • Having a contact form or email address on your company website but failing to respond in a timely fashion. It can help to set expectations, for example, by letting customers know that you respond to online enquiries within 48 hours.
  • Starting a Facebook or Twitter account but not maintaining it.
  • Engaging in conversation on a web community or blog without first understanding the rules of engagement. For example, leaving a comment that is just a plug for your company is usually frowned upon. But if you leave a relevant, helpful comment, and include a link to your company website, that’s likely to be acceptable.
  • Committing to fix a problem or respond to a query and not following through – if you create an expectation of an answer, you need to provide one.
  • Getting into fights with customers. Keep your online communication useful and positive. Avoid posting anything rude or anonymous – and make sure that your staff understand and comply with this rule. 

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Case Study: callcentres.net

Dr. Catriona Wallace has built a following for Your Call, the company blog for her company, callcentres.net.

What we liked

It has a clear welcome and mission statement on the front page: “… designed to offer contact centre industry people like you an opportunity to discuss and debate contemporary issues within the contact centre industry”. It has a brief and clear policy for comments which bans abusive, off-topic, or legally contentious material. And it welcomes two-way discussion via comments and links to other blogs and websites. Incidentally, Wallace’s posts about her non-work-related passions – shoes and shopping – round out the blog with some human interest. Nice!

Room for improvement

The URL, callcentres.net/CALLCENTRES/LIVE/me.get?site. sectionshow&call1137 is very long and complicated. It would have been better to use a simple, memorable URL like callcentres.net/yourcall. This brands your blog with the Your Call moniker, and makes it easier for readers to find – and tell their friends about.

Providing an opportunity for readers to discuss the article, and having a conversation with them in the comments, is a great way to create value for your target audience. It encourages them to get involved and spend time on the site. But with no responses to commenters for 2008, Your Call comes across as a one-way conversation. If Wallace fostered discussion by responding, she could increase the number of commenters and would start to get readers to bring her useful information in the comments. Never assume your readers don’t have valuable information to share with you. 

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