How to Manage Your Business's Online Reputation

by Jennifer Schiff

Small business owners explain how to create a positive impression – or counter a negative one – using Facebook, Twitter and social media.

Like most small business owners, Barbara Thomas, who runs Ruby Jane’s Retro Fabric, wants her customers to be happy and to recommend Ruby Jane’s to friends and family. That’s why Thomas makes it a point to monitor what people say about her business online, on sites like Facebook and Twitter, as well as on forums that relate to her industry, on a daily basis.

When she comes across a positive comment, she always acknowledges the comment – and the commenter – quickly, on the site where the comment was left, and thanks the commenter for taking the time to share. That kind of positive word of mouth, said Thomas, is priceless – and often leads to repeat business as well as new customers.

As for negative comments, “they warrant special attention,” Thomas explained.

For example, a few years ago, when she came across a post in a Google group on quilting and read that a Ruby Jane’s customer was unhappy about how long it took to receive her fabric, Thomas immediately responded in the public forum, “so that potential customers would see that I am not a business that ignores unhappy customers. I identified myself as the shop owner, apologized for the slow shipping and promised the customer that if she would give me another chance I would absolutely do better.”

The result: The customer gave Ruby Jane’s another chance.

We spoke with small business owners who provide tips on how to manage what’s being said about your business online, especially on popular social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Yelp, and how you can use what you hear and read to improve your online image and increase traffic and sales.

How Much Time Should You Invest?

Tom Fernandez, the co-founder, brew maestro and vice president of Fire Island Beer Company, checks Facebook and Twitter, as well as various beer-related forums, daily to see what people are saying about his company – which is a good rule of thumb.

“You should be spending at least 20 minutes a day on social media sites,” said Tom McFeeley, a public relations and social media consultant who’s worked with dozens of small (and much larger) businesses. “Maybe spend five minutes at 9 a.m., another five at noon and at 3 p.m. Then check again in the evening. Or check in between completed tasks. Either way, make sure you’re online enough to follow the conversations [and customers] that you care about.”

Who Should Monitor Your Reputation?

Many busy small business owners outsource, or may be tempted to outsource, the social media aspect of their business, and there is nothing wrong with that. But knowing that the owner or a member of the business is actually the one posting and/or tweeting and replying to posts and/or tweets creates a special bond between customers (both existing and perspective) and the business.

“It is especially important for business founders to be online monitoring because it teaches you who your customers are, what works and what doesn’t,” said Fire Island Beer Company’s Fernandez. “Also, customers like to know (and are often pleasantly surprised) when they learn that they have a direct line to the founder(s) of a company. So it is definitely worth scheduling time in your day for online upkeep.”

And monitoring Twitter and Facebook needn’t be time consuming.

“I manage all of our online activities,” explained Scott Seaman, co-owner of Christopher’s Wine & Cheese in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. “While I’m in front of a computer updating our online inventory, I have TweetDeck running. It’s been the best program for Twitter because it lets me segment different groups and searches. I have all my Facebook permissions set to automatically e-mail me if anyone posts or comments, so I can respond as quickly as possible – same with our blog.”

Why Monitor What Customers Say

“Small businesses have always been able to compete with larger or chain stores by offering better, more personal service,” explained Ruby Jane’s Thomas. “Having an online presence is an extension of that.”

That presence, according to Thomas, keeps you tuned in to what your customers like, lets you respond to their concerns quickly, and gives you the opportunity to create a lot of goodwill. "For example," said Thomas, "I routinely provide links to free quilt patterns, have random drawings for free fabric, spotlight customers that own their own businesses, and my followers LOVE all of these.” It’s also just is good business to know what customers are saying about you.

If a customer says something good about your business, Thomas said that tells you you’re moving in the right direction. And if it's a negative comment, she said you need to address the issues right away.

“There's an old adage: a happy customer tells two people about their experience; an unhappy customer tells everyone,” Thomas said. “Never has that been truer than in the era of social media. [Entrepreneur and PR guru] Peter Shankman tweeted about a bad experience at an Omni hotel, sharing that bad experience with his 50,000 followers. Fortunately Omni has folks monitoring their reputation and solved the problem ASAP.”

How, When and Where to Respond

Being responsive to customers is an essential part of creating a positive impression – and managing your online reputation. If someone asks you a question online, answer, either on that site or via e-mail. If a customer has an issue, address it immediately, and don’t place the blame on the customer. (“Be humble,” advised McFeeley, and move on.)

“We always respond to comments posted on Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, or elsewhere online, usually [via] a private message or e-mail to the commenter,” said Fernandez. “Regardless of whether the comment is positive or negative, we thank them for trying our flagship beer, and give them a sneak preview of what else we have in store for future beer releases. Comments by fans or critics are an invaluable opportunity to reach out directly to the consumer.”

Christopher’s Wine & Cheese’s Scott Seaman advocates – and follows – a similar strategy.

“Thank them for their interest and try to ask questions to have more of a conversation,” advised Seaman. “If they complimented something, maybe we ask what other products they think we should carry.  If it’s something specific like a bottle of wine, we ask what else they’ve tried from that winery or region, or we suggest other wines they may also enjoy based on the ones that they did.”

That kind of personal attention, he said, lets customers know their business is valuable and that they want to keep them as customers. And it typically leads to better sales, referrals and new customers.

Top Ten Tips for Creating a Positive Impression with Social Media

  • Get to know your customers. Find out which sites your customers frequent and join the conversation. And don’t limit yourself to Facebook and Twitter. If you are in the retail business, look at sites like Yelp. Similarly, if you are in the hospitality business, monitor and respond to comments on TripAdvisor.
  • Sign up for Google Alerts. “By subscribing to searches for our company name, we receive daily e-mails with links to pages containing our name,” said Fernandez. “We’ve been surprised with how rapidly we are informed about a mention of our company name – often within hours of the posting.”
  • Watch and learn. “I sat and watched Twitter for a couple of weeks before I ever started interacting,” explained Seaman. “Once I was comfortable there, I found a way to start automatically sending updates from the blog as well as my own conversations. The same with Facebook.”
  • Listen. “Know what people are saying about you, your competitors, and your industry,” said McFeeley.
  • Establish yourself as an expert. Every Thursday Ruby Jane’s Thomas tweets about the show Project Runway, where designers are given 24 hours to create an amazing outfit. “Every Friday I post my review of the show on my blog. Project Runway is always a trending topic on Twitter on Thursday nights, which means my tweets often turn up on Twitter’s home page. Similarly, Project Runway is always a top search term on Friday mornings, which means that my blog post will turn up in search results. This season two of the contestants are from my area, which means I can also submit press releases to local media about my ongoing coverage of the two local contestants.”
  • Be disciplined about posting. “Social media can be quite addictive,” noted McFeeley. You need to be disciplined about your time on sites and the content you post. Most experts agree that you should post only once or twice a day and keep posts brief and to the point, including links if relevant.
  • Give. “If you have a helpful hint, share it. If you see something interesting [such as an article], pass it on,” advised McFeeley. Thomas, for example, is currently Facebooking, tweeting, and blogging about Halloween costume and decorating ideas.
  • Don’t always make it about you. “Don’t use your social networking strictly for promotion,” advised Thomas. Use it to inform and educate. “Of course I tell my Facebook fans about sales or new products, but I also link to free patterns, tutorials, craft industry news, start discussions and hold contests.” Added Fernandez, “If all your posts are pushing your product, you run the risk of being seen as a Facebook/Twitter ‘spammer,’ and you will be ignored.”
  • Say thank you. Send an e-mail or post a response when someone says something nice about you. If a customer leaves an especially nice comment or testimonial, “send a card, via snail mail,” said McFeeley. “Appreciation marketing is a growing trend. Be an early adopter.”
  • Know who is minding the store. If you have employees posting to Facebook and/or Twitter, make sure you have written policies about who is authorized to do what and if certain things are prohibited.

How a Good Reputation Translates into Sales

“Small businesses have generally sold personal service as one of their best qualities,” explained Seaman. And by being on social media sites and other places that your customers frequent, participating in their conversations and showing that you care, “you give your customers a level of service and the personal attention they’re seeking,” he said.

For Christopher’s Wine & Cheese, that personal attention has resulted in a 13 percent increase in sales over the same time period last year, which Seaman largely attributes to social media and actively engaging customers online, through his blog, Facebook, Twitter, and Yelp.

Jennifer Lonoff Schiff writes about IT and small business issues and runs a blog for and about small businesses.

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This article was originally published on Wednesday Sep 16th 2009
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