By Greg Sands, CEO
I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “At the end of the day, all you have is your name.” It may sound cliché, but it’s absolutely true, especially for small business owners whose livelihood depends on having a good reputation.
Unfortunately, protecting your brand has become more of a challenge in the Internet age. Complaints that were once handled in person and in private are often shared on-line, potentially alienating new customers and making it difficult for shop owners to resolve issues. Even worse, because of the anonymous nature of the Internet, some shop owners may find themselves the subject of false claims.
That’s exactly what happened to me last year. An individual who claimed to have inside knowledge of my business began posting a series of false statements about my shops and me on a variety of consumer websites and blogs. The allegations were not only untrue, but also extremely serious, accusing me of acting unethically and encouraging other shop owners to do the same. Given the nature of the claims, I knew I had to act quickly.
I hired a computer forensic specialist (who knew such a job existed?) who managed to track and identify the culprit on-line after roughly a week. Based on the advice of my attorney, I sent the individual a very strongly worded cease and desist order and threatened legal action if he did not stop his posts and correct his false claims. In addition, I had our SEO team post a response to the various sites and blogs where the false accusations had been posted, clearly explaining how my shops operate and noting that I had filed a cease and desist order against the individual making the claims.
Despite the quick action, it took a few weeks to undo the damage. And, I still find it upsetting that some people may have read the comments before we were able to address the issue and may have developed a negative opinion of my business based on inaccurate information. The whole experience reminded me of Warren Buffett’s famous quote about how it can take a lifetime to build a good reputation, but only a few minutes to destroy it.
I believe that by continuing to operate with honesty and integrity, I can overcome any misperceptions that may have arisen from the on-line smear campaign. I also hope that by sharing my story, I’ll raise awareness about how important it is to be cognizant of the various threats that may endanger your brand name.
Here are a few guidelines for maintaining a good reputation in cyberspace.
Monitor and Manage: I bet a lot of shop owners don’t even know that on-line complaints about their businesses exist. My SEO company was the first to spot the alarming posts and bring them to my attention. But even shops that don’t utilize SEO firms need to monitor their on-line presence. Google your name regularly to see what type of hits are returned. It’s also worthwhile to visit Yelp and other consumer review sites to gauge feedback.
If you see negative posts or reviews from customers who have had a bad experience, take the time to respond and attempt to address the issue as quickly as possible. If you can fix the problem, it increases the chance that the customer will update his or her post to reflect your efforts to improve the situation. If you can’t reach a customer, don’t be afraid to post a comment describing the action you’ve taken to fix the problem.
Of course, there will always be a certain number of complaints that are bogus, posted by cutthroat competitors or angry ex-employees. I’ve found that Yelp and other sites are doing a better job of rooting out fake reviews and consumers are getting savvy about identifying posts that sound either too negative or overly positive.
Take Action: Very few on-line comments call for legal action. But inaccurate or untrue statements made on a large number of sites should be cause for alarm and could signal a larger campaign to harm your business. In those instances, it’s also wise to act more aggressively in order to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control or garnering media attention. You also need to play hardball occasionally to send a message to others who may be thinking of damaging your business using message boards or review sites.
Ask for Help: Remember, you’re in the business of fixing cars, not disarming Internet bullies. So don’t be afraid to ask the experts for help if you get into a situation where on-line comments are threatening to ruin your reputation.
If someone is spreading false claims, the first thing you’ll want to do is hire an SEO firm to prevent the comments from showing up first in search engine results. They can also investigate the feasibility of removing the comments from some sites. An SEO firm might also be able to help refer you to surveillance experts and others who can track down the source of the claims. A public relations firm can help craft a response to the on-line posts, if necessary.
The Internet can serve as a wonderful marketing tool for your business. But don’t forget that it can also serve as a platform for individuals who may want to damage your reputation.
Greg Sands is the CEO and founder of Mudlick Mail in Acworth, GA. The company provides demographically targeted, direct mail programs for automotive service and repair shops nationally. Greg also owns and operates 29 repair shops across the country. Greg can be reached at [email protected] or 1-866-794-0167.