Reputation means everything in business these days and when it comes to online reviews, they can make or break a company. Just ask Ian Shepherd, a retail expert with 25 years’ experience, including being CEO of British games retailer Game Group during its final days and the COO of cinema chain Odeon.
Shepherd knows first-hand the challenges facing not only high-street and online retailers but businesses in general that are attempting to operate in and respond to the multi-channel, always-on world of the digital consumer. As part of surviving and succeeding in this environment, companies must carefully manage their online reputation.
There’s good reason for this. Take retailers for example, many report that even if only a minority of sales are made online, a large percentage of store sales come following some kind of online research. “At Odeon that was certainly true,” Shepherd tells Voxpro. “Even when only 20 percent of visits were booked online, the majority of the remaining visits had involved looking up the film and showing times online beforehand. It seems likely that the bigger the purchase the more likely that online research will play a role, and online research will expose customers not just to your carefully curated website but to a blizzard of online discussion about your brand.”
According to Shepherd, the best brands are getting pretty good at managing their online reputation however, they are, sadly, still in the minority. So how can you take a leaf out of their book and start tackling how your brand is being perceived online?
“There are often pockets of discussion about brands taking place in all sorts of unexpected places.“
Conduct an online audit
A good place to start is by running a thorough internet search for what is being said about you. “I often encourage executives in businesses simply to Google their brand name – either on its own or associated with words like ‘complaint’ or ‘problem’,” Shepherd explains.
“The value of doing that is not just that you will see how your business is being talked about online, but also where it is being talked about.” That might include obvious places such as review sites such as TripAdvisor or Glassdoor but there are often pockets of discussion about brands taking place in all sorts of unexpected places.
“Of course you can use technology to generate reports which quantify the volume of discussion and offer sentiment scoring,” says Shepherd. “There is certainly a place for it, but there is no substitute for spending a few hours reading search results for yourself.”
“One of the consequences of the way customers can share opinions in the new economy is that brands have fewer places to hide.”
Be reactive – and don’t hide!
Additionally, Shepherd advises companies – whether in the B2C or B2B space – to develop a really active social media presence but, importantly, to ensure that it’s reactive too. Don’t avoid those difficult customer complaints or queries – respond to them, even if it means taking them offline but showing others that they are being addressed. The worst thing you can do is hide.
“One of the consequences of the way customers can share opinions in the new economy is that brands have fewer places to hide – so if you are getting a lot of negative reviews for your delivery service, for example, then your first port of call should be to fix it,” says Shepherd. “Alongside that rather obvious strategy, it also pays to be open, honest and interactive with customers – acknowledging complaints, responding to questions and demonstrating a clear brand point of view.”
However, make sure your responses are real and relevant. Shepherd uses hotels and restaurants as an example. “The worst strategy for a negative review is to leave it there with no response, but simply adding an automated ‘we are sorry for your negative experience’ response is no better,” he says. “Taking the time to demonstrate that you are listening and offering a point of view, on the other hand, can turn a negative into a positive.”
Provide self-help forums
Shepherd also advises companies to have customer self-help forums where consumers can search for answers to common questions and solve their own problems. He highlights mobile phone companies as an example of an industry embracing this more modern way of keeping customers happy.
“Adding these kind of forums to their customer-service offering is a fantastic way to both reduce call centre costs and also to build a knowledge base online,” he says.
“We gravitate towards businesses we feel we know, and a customer can’t know you if you present different faces through different media.“
Have a Clear Brand Personality
According to Shepherd, while it is important to have a strong content strategy in place, it is critical to have a clear – and clearly expressed – brand personality.
“Social media teams are great at producing content, that’s what they do for a living, but to build a strong online presence it is important that all of that is painting a clear picture of who you are as a business,” he says. “That means more than just some corporate ‘values’, though – it means a real picture of the personality of your business and the people in it. We gravitate towards businesses we feel we know, and a customer can’t know you if you present different faces through different media.”
In the world of B2B, testimonials from partners and clients can be effective too, but Shepherd says they need to be genuine. “They can be pretty effective when they are specific and personal. However, readers have a very acute sense of ‘corporate guff’ and will filter it out.”
The multi-channel, always-on world of the digital consumer has dramatically changed what it means to build a brand and protect its reputation. As Shepherd advises: “It is no longer a question of ‘deciding’ your brand values and turning them into adverts. Consumers can now determine for themselves whether you are living those values, and will tell each other if you aren’t. Alignment between who you are, what you do and how you project yourself online has never been more important.”
Ian Shepherd’s new book Reinventing Retail: The New Rules That Drive Sales and Grow Profits, published by Pearson, is available now.
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