How can I respond to criticism of my company online?
One of the main reasons we don't yet have a blog or other presence online is because the Big Boss is paranoid that we'd be a magnet for negative comments and criticism online. I tell him that it's already out there and he pales and asks how the heck we're supposed to control it. I don't really know how to answer him, though...
Last week I talked about different ways you can track what people are saying about your company, products, service or even you in the online world (see How to keep track of company buzz and reputation online). We primarily looked at Google Alerts, but also mentioned Boulder, Colorado-based companies Filtrbox.com and UmbriaListens.com, both of which also offer sophisticated discussion tracking services, and I threw in a mention of TrackUR.com because, well, my friend Andy owns the company.
Just as importantly, we talked about how you can track discussion in the fast-moving mobile-friendly world of Twitter by using the Twitter search feature and then subscribing to the results. Nice, neat, and very interactive. An example of a company that does just that to stay involved with the conversation is Colorado local restaurant Spud Bros, which you can find in Twitter by simply mentioning @spudbros therein.
The real question, however, is what's the best way to deal with the discussion you find about your company, product, etc? That is, if I had a search for "Dave Taylor" + "Daily Camera" and found a lot of people saying either how wonderful (hopefully!) or terrible my weekly column is in the Boulder Daily Camera, our local newspaper, what should I do next?
I thought it would be interesting to ask that question of two local experts in online reputation management, so I asked Ari Newman, Founder and President of Filtrbox, and Doyle Albe, President and New Media Director at Metzger Associates what they recommend to clients.
Focusing primarily on critical online comments, Ari suggests "When I see negative feedback, I first assess the nature of the complaint and then engage by responding in the same context with some constructive advice or acknowledgment of the issue. My goals are 1. to let the person know we are listening, 2. let them know we care, and 3. instill confidence that there is either a solution, we are working on it, or we are willing to help. We try to respond to all feedback quickly, but by looking at reach and influence we are able prioritize our responses when necessary.
What I'll highlight from his answer is "in the same context". This is key to managing your online reputation because wherever you encounter the comment, you must respond in that same medium. If they're using Blogger, you need to add a comment. If their comment is in MySpace, you need to be in MySpace, and so on. Otherwise the disconnect means that people who find their commentary won't ever see your response.
I asked Doyle to break down his advice into the two possible scenarios of critical comments that are or aren't true. Both appear online, of course, and criticism that's untrue is perhaps one of the great fears of any business person when contemplating the Internet. What if your competitor simply starts spreading false digital rumors to
Doyle starts with the easy one, when the complaints are accurate and legitimate, like someone complaining that Spud Brothers doesn't have a large and varied menu:
"Rule #1: DON'T start a flame war. You can't win. In the end, you must take a high road, even if it hurts a little. If a customer is upset with you -- LISTEN and show empathy. How you would like to appear to others reading the posts? Your choice is "I'm sorry for the problem. What can I do to help?" or "Are you kidding? We don't even want business from jerks like you." The choice is pretty clear. A company that listens to criticism and offers to remedy the situation almost can't look bad."
The greater challenge, as I said, is how to deal with the worst-case scenario of false rumors and malicious slander spreading online. Doyle has this to share:
"This is tough. There are sites out there that specialize in this and can be a real thorn in the side. They're simply a forum for comments that are often untraceable and, in our experience, not even true. RipoffReport.com is a great example. Even if a company wants to help solve a problem on some of these sites, it's hard to identify a customer signed only as "Bob K. in California" for example.
"If the rant is a one-off on a small blog with limited readership, it's often best to simply let it go. If the problem persists, arguing is not the answer, but a gentle "we've been tracking your comments, and are quite surprised. How can we help you get to the bottom of this" might work. We've seen people stop posting as soon as they realize that someone is watching.
"Clearly, if it gets bad enough (or if someone is threatening your company or employees), legal remedies can be considered, but typically only as a last resort."
My thanks to both Ari Newman of Filtrbox.com and Doyle Albe of Metzger Associates for their assistance in wrestling with this complex topic.
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