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Stay in business long enough and you will eventually run into the perpetually dissatisfied customer. For whatever reason, your business and this customer are oil and water. You do not mix well. It would be nice to write him off, but in the Internet age you cannot. If angry enough, the perpetually dissatisfied has the power to destroy your company’s online reputation.

In the past, disgruntled customers would relay their horrible experience with your company to their friends and neighbors, often loaded with embellishments and lacking key facts. Unless your service was so poor you generated customer rage with regularity, it was unlikely the odd agitated customer would do much damage to your company’s image. After all, if he was unreasonable dealing with you, he was probably unreasonable as a rule. His friends and neighbors would know that and discount his ranting accordingly.

The Internet changed the game. Technically savvy consumers have the ability to create quick and dirty “slam sites” devoted to trashing companies they disdain. Anyone with an email account can spread the word to their friends and, through an email list, to thousands. Add message boards, social media, and review sites, which now include the search engines’ local business listings. Someone with an excess of time and lack of mercy can all but take down your business through multiple negative postings. If you aren’t paying attention, this might be virtually all prospects see when they search for your company or industry.

If that’s not bad enough, disgruntled and fired employees can weigh in and rail about your poor business practices, sales pressure, and horrible service. For example, the former employee of an air conditioning company anonymously and publicly posted that, “People should know that the owner of this company is a tirant (sic) who has no concept of how a business should be run. He changes policy daily on a whim, fires people regularly with no understandable reason and cuts peoples wages for no reason at all… [His] training program only teaches hard SELLING and if a follow up service has to be done for the customer, he docks the pay of the employee who goes on that service call.”

Is that true? Who knows? It sounds to me like the technician was upset about not getting paid to go on a callback, which is hardly unreasonable, but certainly sounds like it in this post. If you were a consumer viewing this review, without other information, would you call the company? Or would you move on to someone else?

Because of the ease with which a company and individual’s reputation can be tarnished online, an entire industry is emerging, called “reputation defense.” Companies in the industry will gladly accept payment to manage your reputation. If yours is in tatters, that might make sense. For most contractors, a little diligence will help you protect your good name and preclude the need for reputation rescue.

First, Do Good

This is so obvious it shouldn’t need to be written. The best thing you can do to protect yourself is to follow the golden rule and treat people well, whether they are your customers, employees, or suppliers.

Take a Big Picture Approach

Sometimes contractors get stubborn about unreasonable customers. The fact is customers are not always right, but they are always customers. And today, they are empowered customers. Don’t get hung up on little things and be so right that you’re wrong. Write them off, pay them off, make them go away, and flag them in your computer system so that you never book another call with them in the future.

Monitor Yourself

Use Google and Yahoo alerts to send you emails whenever you or your company is mentioned online. You can specify whether the alerts are sent weekly, daily, or real time. As the Internet’s dominant search engine, Google is especially important to monitor.

In addition, there are a variety of free tools available that aid in monitoring your reputation. Some work better than others. You should test them to find which you prefer. These include:

· BackType.com

· BlogPulse.com

· BoardTracker.com (for discussion lists and forums)

· MonitorThis.info

· TweetBeep.com (for Twitter)

· TweetLater.com (for Twitter)

· WhoLinksToMe.com

While automated alerts are nice, you should not limit your monitoring activity to alerts. Periodically search yourself and your company and check the review sites like Google Places, Yahoo and Bing local business listings, and Yelp!

Claim Your Company

If you have not already claimed your company on the review sites, claim it now. Typically, this will involve a verification process that may take as long as several weeks. Once you’ve claimed your company, you can comment on consumer reviews in Yelp! and Google Places (note: you cannot comment on the reviews that Google imports from third party sites). Yahoo and Bing should their lead and allow owner comments in the near future.

Respond to Comments

When someone posts a review of your company, consider commenting. For positive reviews, thank the customer for the kind words. If possible, give the customer a sincere complement in return. If the customer’s praise seems almost over-the-top, you might include some self-effacing humor. For example, you might say, “Wow. Thanks for the kind words. I gotta show this to my teenager. She has no idea.”

When responding to negative comments, take care to avoid defensiveness. Inadvertently, you could make things worse. Not every negative comment merits a response. If the situation is news to you, you might respond by saying, “Mr. Homeowner, I was not aware of your situation and appreciate your bringing it to my attention. First, I’m sorry that you’re experiencing problems. No one wants to go through that. Second, I will be in contact with you soon to resolve the matter to your satisfaction.”

Of course, if you promise to follow-up, you must follow-up. All of the gains you make by responding in a timely manner will be lost if the customer posts a follow-up that you’re all talk and no follow-through.

What if the situation is known… all too well known to you? What if this is the customer from Hades who’s impossible to satisfy? If it’s necessary to respond, avoid emotion, avoid “blaming” the customer (no matter how much you want to), and keep your response factual and objective. Even then, you might save your responses for situations where you’ve gone above and beyond the call. For example, you might respond, “Mr. Customer, as we discussed, the price you were charged was the same you were quoted and agreed to pay before work began. Again, I make no apologies for our pricing. While we are higher than some contractors, we are lower than others. Our price reflects our quality, speed of response, and the peace of mind that comes from full insurance, background checks, licensing, training, and so on. Given that we offered to remove the product and give you a full refund or reduce our pricing to the level you think is fair, and you have declined, I’m not sure what else we can do. Please tell me what will make you satisfied.”

Encourage Reviews

The best way to minimize the impact of bad reviews is to swamp them with good reviews. Every customer should be encouraged to provide you with a positive review on Google, Yelp!, and other review sites. Whenever you receive unsolicited praise from customers, ask if the customer wouldn’t mind posting this on Google Places if you email a link.

Cleaning Up Your Reputation

If you do receive bad reviews or comments there’s little you can do to eliminate them. However, you can bury them by generating so many positive or neutral citations the negative comments are driven so far down in your search engine results, no one will ever see them. This is what the reputation management companies do.

If you lack a social media presence for your company, create accounts with every available social media site. It should include your company name, website, and at least a paragraph or two about your business. The site, NameChk.com, is an excellent source of social media sites and quick way to see if your company name is available. At the very least, make sure you have a presence on Facebook, Linked In, and Twitter.

Make a short, factual, Wikipedia entry about your company. State when the company was founded, what you do, and other facts. If you hype yourself the wiki community is likely to react poorly. In theory, someone besides you should create your Wikipedia entry. However, if no one else is available and you need to drive negative information down the search results page, make your own entry.

YouTube, Flickr, and Google Picassa tend to achieve high search engine rankings. Buy a flipvid camera and make a series of 60 second videos where you offer tips for consumers. Upload these to YouTube (or use TubeMogul.com and distribute them to multiple video sites).

Take pictures of installation and project work, company trucks, building signs, and so on. Upload these to Flickr and Picassa. With your videos and pictures, make sure you include your company name and website.

If you do not have a company blog, start one. Blog about service, repair, and installation case studies. Highlight positive customer experiences. Try to embed the videos you’ve shot and pictures you’ve taken. Each blog post should point back to your company website.

Turn your blog posts into short articles and post them on the free article sites like EzineArticles.com, DocStoc.com, and EveryDayArticles.com. At the bottom of each article, include a link to your company website.

Write a series of press releases about your company, jobs you’ve completed, consumer tips, etc. Upload them to the web using WebWire.com. Once more, make sure your company name and website are included.

These actions will not make bad press disappear, but it is likely to push it to realm of irrelevance. Once you’ve made cleaned up your online reputation, make sure you monitor it moving forward to prevent things from getting out of hand again.


Matt Michel is the CEO of the Service Roundtable (www.ServiceRoundtable.com). This column was excerpted from Matt’s forthcoming book, “Social Media for the Service Contractor,” which will be distributed free to people attending Matt’s seminar on social media at HVAC Comfortech. To contact Matt, call toll free at 877.262.3341, his mobile at 214.995.8889, email him at matt.michel@serviceroundtable.com, or connect with him at Linked In, Facebook, or Twitter (@ComancheMktg). You can also read his blog at www.ComancheMarketing.com.