It used to be that a retailer built a solid reputation with quality merchandise, friendly service and a charming smile. Today’s world is more complicated. Customers are sharing their good and bad shopping experiences on internet review sites such as Yelp, Google and Angie’s List, and on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. The power to polish or tarnish a business image has largely been handed over to a horde of faceless reporters.
“Online comments will become increasingly important to retailers because of the growing power of social media,” says Daniel Burrus, a business consultant based in Wisconsin. “As a business image builder, the use of social media is a ‘hard trend’ that will become more prevalent.”
The “social” part of that trend, says Burrus, carries the payload. “We humans are social beings. When a technology satisfies that need, a revolution is created.” Smartphones, in particular, give customers the power to broadcast a shopping experience instantly to friends and strangers alike.
To survive in this ever-expanding environment, retailers need to monitor and improve their online reputation even if they don’t sell merchandise on the web. “Prospects will search for reports about your store online even if you are an offline business,” cautions Andy Beal, a North Carolina-based consultant. “They will look to see what previous customers have reported.” And the stakes are high: Positive reviews and comments attract more customers. Negative ones can be the kiss of death.
If all this makes the online world seem like a scary monster, take heart: Tobacconists can bridle the internet beast and turn its power to their advantage. “Many people don’t think of their online presence as something that can be monitored and built,” says Hersh Davis-Nitzberg, a California-based consultant. In fact, he says, a carefully designed image improvement plan can raise your profile as a quality retailer.
How? Davis-Nitzberg suggests letting a few key principles guide your actions.
The first is to realize that building a great reputation means more than responding appropriately to negative reviews. “You need to do more than just repair damage that is done online,” he says. “You also need to create a positive image for your brand.”
Before you do either, you need to decide which review sites and social media to monitor. The internet is huge, and trying to keep an eye on too many possibilities will be counterproductive. “You need to understand your centers of influence,” says Beal. “Where is your target audience? Where do they hang out online and directly discuss your business? Don’t just assume the answer is Facebook and Twitter. Maybe people are going to Yelp, or Angie’s List, or a special forum.”
One way to find out the answer is to use Google to search for your business name or industry keywords, says Beal. “The most active communities will show up higher on the results. You can also search your competitors’ names to find out where they are focusing their efforts.”
And remember not to ignore the customers right in front of you. Survey them. Ask them what internet sites they go to for trusted information about retailers.
Eliminate the negative
Mention social media to most retailers and the first thing they’ll relate is a negative review horror story. No one seems immune from the damage a disgruntled customer can do with a Yelp comment or a Twitterverse broadcast. Bad reviews happen, however; it is the reality for any retailer. What should you do?
Avoid the temptation to ignore the negative review. A lack of response makes a terrible impression on the public. People will think that retailer does not care about taking care of customer problems. At the same time, avoid a knee-jerk response. “If you get a negative review, do not start an argument online,” advises Michael Fertik, executive chairman of reputation.com. “Pause and take a breath. Analyze the review before taking action.”
Fertik suggests beginning with an assessment of the quality of the review. Is it written in all caps and filled with exclamation points? People are likely to discount the poster as a dubious source of information, especially if the review is the only negative one of a dozen others. In such a case you might post a reasonable response such as, “Thank you for your feedback. We are taking steps to resolve this issue.” A simple response like that one will communicate your concern to other customers reading the reviews without raising undue hopes that you will be able to mollify a crank.
What if the review is written in a thoughtful manner, with a reasoned analysis of the purchase event being assessed? Readers are likely to take it more seriously, and you will want to spend more time responding. Burrus suggests starting with a statement such as this: “We are very sorry that you had a bad experience at our store. We want to make every effort to make things right.” With these words you show you are on their side rather than an adversary.
Next, says Burrus, invite the customer to invest in a solution with words such as these:
“What would it take to make you happy?” This throws the ball into the customer’s court and invites a response that will provide you with valuable insight into how to resolve a sticky situation. “The words ‘What would it take?’ are the magic ones,” says Burrus. “Let the customer tell you.”
The customer’s request may be for much less than you might think. Very often, says Burrus, all the complaining customer wants is an acknowledgment that a complaint is justified, that a transaction did not go off as planned. “People really want to be heard,” says Burrus. “So instead of protecting your point of view, agree with them.”
If the original review was a thoughtful and carefully written one, the customer will likely respond with a reasonable request. Agree to what the customer asks and post instructions on how the customer can participate in resolving the matter. If the request is unreasonable, post a thoughtful alternative. Keep negotiating with the customer until the matter is resolved.
And now the best news of all: Reviews can be changed. “When you respond to negative reviewers from a customer service perspective, they can turn into your best advocates,” says Davis-Nitzberg. “They can change information they have put on the web by stating, in effect, ‘This company reached out and changed their business practices to better address the issues we had.’” That endorsement can take the form of a follow-up post that the reviewer makes in the thread in which you have participated.
Also, to enhance the positives, consider creating a page on your website that contains a dozen or so glowing reviews. Then, when a review on a public site seems unreasonable, you can post a link to your assembled quotes, along with the words, “Here is a link to a dozen of our customers who have appreciated our service.”
The most important aspect of the above scenario is its public profile. Remember that the whole point of the exercise is to let the public see how thoughtfully you go about resolving a customer’s complaint.
To some extent you can take the conversation “offline” and deal with the person via emails or phone calls. But if you do so, be sure to post details of what you are doing in the same online thread as the original complaint. And don’t forget to post the final resolution of the issue so the public can see the entire picture.
Seeing the details of the resolution will make a tremendous impression on people who are accustomed to the “do nothing” attitude of retailers who do not care about the welfare of their customers. “Even if you end up not giving the person what they want, the dialogue will show people that you care and that you want to make things right,” says Burrus.
“People see that you are trying.” And when it comes time for customers to make a purchase, they will patronize the retailer who has exhibited a concern for customer welfare.
The above comments reflect a key principle: Always consider a negative review an opportunity. “When anyone posts something negative, you have been given a fantastic gift,” says Burrus. “What you do next can turn them into a raving fan. Address their issue, acknowledge that it is a problem, then resolve it. Do it online, and the public will see it.”
Accentuate the positive
In the best of all worlds, all of the online reviews of your business would be positive. But that likely won’t happen. And the fact is that an occasional negative review, if handled as described above, does little or no damage. “The problem is not a negative review but the scarcity of positive ones,” says Fertik. “You want to achieve a good proportion of the two.”
People tend to post reviews only when they are upset. So you need to take steps to make sure your happy customers share their experiences. “Smaller businesses need to be actively getting their ratings fans, their best customers, talking about them,” says Burrus.
“And one of the ways to do so is to make it easier for them.”
Here’s one way to do that: Suppose a customer makes a gracious remark about your service or merchandise. You might respond with words such as these: “Would you mind sharing your experiences by putting out a tweet or posting on Facebook?” Or,
“If you can go to my Facebook page and say something about it, I would really like that.”
There are other ways to encourage customer feedback, says Davis-Nitzberg. “Send email to people who have been customers. Ask them about their experiences. Then ask, ‘Would you like to share your experience?’ And provide them with links to review sites.”
Physical retail stores have an advantage because they can encourage a public dialogue at the moment the customer is buying, says Fertik. “Have an iPad on hand and ask, ‘Can you share your experiences online right now?’ Or plug each customer’s contact information into an email system that generates a request when the customer gets home.”
At the very least, give each customer your business card with your Twitter and Facebook handles. And when good reviews are posted, take action. “Thank people who say good things,” says Beal. “And you can also post their quotes on your website. That helps enhance your reputation even further.”
Do not pay for reviews. That is called “astroturfing” because it is the opposite of “grass roots.” This is often against the rules of review sites and can get your listing flagged. And it’s simply bad for your reputation. The above suggestions maintain a distinction between openly soliciting reviews and asking people to share their experiences online.
There is much more to building a great image than monitoring your reviews. You can also take positive steps to communicate your expertise and your professionalism.
Here again, the internet plays a critical role. “Provide information that is of value to your public,” says Beal. “Join internet forums and post advice of real use to your customers and prospects.” Post useful information on your Facebook page. Create how-to video guides and tutorials. Consider putting together short clips of your best customers using your merchandise. These “soft sell” approaches will establish your business as a source
What materials will people find most valuable? Ask your customers for guidance. Sometimes your most loyal clients are the best sources of ideas because they are thoroughly familiar with your merchandise and services, as well as with the new-customer knowledge gap.
All of the above image-building techniques share the same driving force: the desire to run a customer-focused business. “Earn the trust of the public by responding to customer complaints, providing useful information and answering people’s questions,” says Beal. “Then, when it comes time to buy, people will patronize your store.”
This story first appeared in the September/October 2016 issue of Tobacconist magazine.