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When Good Shops Look Bad

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Ron Bar, owner of the Philadelphia-based auto body and mechanical shop First Class Auto Land, takes pride in his business and his happy customers. And indeed, most of the customer reviews of his shop on yellowpages.com are glowing. “You are the nicest people I have ever met and you know how to take care of your customers,” reads one. “I have been to a lot of car [shops] and this is the best [of] all. They have fair prices and great attitude for the customer. I warmly recommend this shop for your next car service or repair,” reads another. But there’s one negative review in the lot, and it’s a doozy—accusing Bar’s business of being dirty and calling them liars.

It used to be the case that if a customer had a complaint—valid or otherwise—he might stuff your comment box with harsh words, vent to friends and family or send a letter to the Better Business Bureau. These days, however, unhappy folks often head straight to the Web to air their grievances for all to see, on any number of customer review sites and blogs. Those complaints can take on a life of their own as they get picked up by one search engine after another.

Any negative online posting can be a scar on your reputation that can exist forever.

Not surprisingly, an entire industry known as online reputation management (ORM) has sprung up to help companies and individuals deal with the fallout. Effective ORM campaigns can involve search engine optimization (to push up positive web content), social media enhanced press release_notess (those enriched with video from YouTube, photos from PhotoBucket, a link to your blog and user-friendly options like “print this press release” and “email to a friend” embedded in the release), blogs, social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn, video and podcasts, says Andy Beal, co-author of Radically Transparent: Monitoring and Managing Reputations Online and an ORM consultant in Raleigh, N.C. Companies that specialize in ORM charge widely varying rates—anything from about $20 a month for basic monitoring service to $50,000 or more for cleaning up a truly sullied reputation.

Businesses that are part of the service industry, like collision repair shops, are especially at risk for ORM issues because of the subjective nature of “good” service. “If you buy an object and you’re unhappy with it, as long as a company has a halfway decent return policy, you can return it and get your money back, and that will resolve the problem,” says Ken Knorr, founder and CEO of Buildtelligence, a search engine optimization and reputation management company in Mount Dora, Fla. “But when you’re a service industry, [quality] is subjective, and that subjectivity can create a consumer complaint that’s a lot more difficult to resolve.”

The best way to prevent negative online customer reviews? Offer your customers a different way  to voice their concerns, such as through an online questionnaire.

But are negative online reviews really damaging enough to a business to merit the time—and expense—involved? Certainly, negative reviews can be incredibly damaging to a business. In Beal’s opinion, any negative online posting “can be a scar on your reputation that can exist forever.” They can also turn away potential customers who may be turned off by the negative information.

Still, a negative review can also be a positive learning experience—especially if a complaint is valid and alerts you to an area of your business that needs improving (maybe competitive pricing, or customer service). And one negative review in a list of raves can even add legitimacy to your business, Beal says. “Sometimes the odd negative review just adds to the authenticity,” he says. “If you’ve got 50 positive reviews and one negative review, people will apply common sense and give you the benefit of the doubt.”

It also doesn’t take a hired professional to keep tabs on your online reputation. ORM means “realizing that the perceived value of your brand is defined by information found on the Internet, therefore requiring your constant monitoring and participation in these Web conversations,” Beal says.

Your customers are having a conversation every time they post a review on a site like yellowpages.com or insiderpages.com. Here’s how you can deal with (and possibly even prevent) negative online reviews:

PROVIDE AN OUTLET FOR COMPLAINTS

The best way to prevent negative online customer reviews is to offer your customers a different way to voice their concerns. “A lot of the time when someone posts something negative, it’s because they feel frustrated that their concern or complaint wasn’t heard by the business,” Beal says. “Most issues in terms of negative reviews can be prevented by having a better system for complaints in place.” So ask customers to fill out a questionnaire, send them a follow-up e-mail the next day, call to inquire about their experience or offer a place for feedback on your Web site. “Most company Web sites are more like online brochures; they don’t provide a place where an unhappy customer can submit a complaint,” Knorr says. “But by giving that outlet on your site, you [may] prevent people from posting something negative somewhere else.”

ASK SATISFIED CUSTOMERS TO POST

There’s no magic formula that says it takes 5 (or 15 or 25) positive reviews to combat a negative one. Still, especially on review sites that list the freshest content first, asking happy customers to post rave reviews can help push a bad post to the bottom of a page, or to a second page—and potential customers may not venture that deep into a review site.

Another idea: If you’re able to resolve the complaint of an online poster, ask them to post an updated, more positive review. “Studies have shown that if you can correct a transgression, people will become an advocate for you,” Beal says.

RESPOND VERY CAREFULLY

If you do come across a negative review of your company—especially one that you feel lacks validity—temper your knee-jerk instinct to bite back. “The worst thing you can do is go on the attack,” Beal says. “That portrays you as an aggressor who doesn’t treat the consumer well.” The better approach, in his opinion: “Express your concern, say this is not indicative of how you treat your customers, and offer to fix it. If nothing else happens, you’ve left your own mark on your record.” Your response should include an email address or a toll-free number for the aggrieved customer to contact you; under no circumstances should you get involved in a back-and-forth discussion online.

Knorr, on the other hand, often cautions his clients against responding online at all, “because all you’re doing is creating more content, and building the relevance of the content,” he says. But if you do want to respond, he offers this advice: Don’t use your company name in your response, as that is likely a prime search engine keyword. Instead, craft your response using terms like “we” or “our company.”

First Class Auto Land’s Bar did respond to his detractor online—to no avail. He never did find out who gave his company the negative review, and never heard back from the customer. Still, he goes online at least twice a week to check out customer reviews. “I care about my business,” he says, “and it’s important to know if people are happy, and if not, [to know] what happened.”

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