Yelp! I’ve Fallen! And, I Can’t Get Up!

“I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up.”

~Famous–and incessantly mocked–line from Lifeline Medical Alert TV spot

IF YOU’RE A BUSINESS OWNER, the pain of getting “Yelped” falls somewhere between a moderate migraine and a worm burrowing in your brain.

There you are: cheerfully flitting about, running a beautiful business–and BLAMO! A rageaholic on a bad day (or rather, a bad life) spends an inordinate amount of time churning out pure vitriol about your brand. Vitriol that spews every minute of every day rearing its sinister head–sending potential customers into the warm embrace of…your competition.

Frightful, I know. But, it’s a scenario that plays out thousands of times every day.

In this “word-of-mouth” economy, people trust one another more than company messaging. In fact, a recent eMarketer study found that people trust peer reviews roughly 14 to 1 over traditional marketing.

So there we have it. You may work for a billion-dollar brand with a veritable army of PR and communications people, but one articulate, scathing review on a popular review site can burn through your brand equity–and there’s almost nothing you can do about it.

Or is there?

My agency has worked with dozens of clients, monitoring their brands and managing their online reputations. We’ve learned jaw-dropping lessons about the art and science of reputation management–and I’d like to share some of what we’ve learned with you.

First, please understand–and I said it above–you are not in control. And, that’s okay. Trying to muscle your way through this process will only draw the ire of the Yelper–and the community. It’s like leading a horse to water and forcing him to drink. Not a good idea.

We’ve seen it time and again with vaunted brands from Bank of America to United to Verizon. They have plenty of resources to put out fires, but because they responded so poorly, even they could not contain the tsunami-like revolts against them.

Brands have never been at greater risk than they are at this moment. That risk grows not by the day, but by the minute. The power of the people is becoming greater than the people in power.

You cannot control the message. But, you can shape it.

That is why reputation management has become such an integral component of social media. It is important, yet simple to develop. It requires three things: smart planning, proactive listening–and the right response.

Before you respond to an online review, take a breath. No seriously, take a nice big, cleansing breath. If you must, write your angry response. Then, toss it. It will do more harm than good. And, really: When you get down to it, this one review will not matter one bit to the 70 year-old you. Let’s keep things in perspective here.

3 THINGS TO LOOK FOR

1. What is your aggregate rating? If your business is ranked above four stars on Yelp, Amazon or any other review site, studies show that the impact of one negative post is less significant. People look at your aggregate rating and number of reviews (for statistical significance). If you’re good on both (e.g. 4 stars, 62 ratings), you’re good. All you need to do is reach out to the person and post a diplomatic, decisive and public statement (See below).

2. How bad is it? Not bad as in bad, bad as in good. In other words, is it a well-composed, articulate, fact-based and non-emotional critique from someone with credibility on the review site, or worse: Web-wide? (If so, it’s time to start panicking slightly. See below.)

3. Is the person unstable? If so, that actually works in your favor. Remember most people are reasonable, forgiving human beings. If they see someone going off half-cocked IN ALL CAPS, as in: “MY FOOD WAS 1 MINITE (sic) LATE! AND THESE PEOPLE COULDN’T CARE LESS ABOUT MY DINNER OR MY PAIN OR MY DIVORCE! I HATE THAT WOMAN!!!!!!!!! (9 exclamation points), the people reading know the person is angry with the world and not so much their pasta primavera, and they’ll put that review in perspective.

Before I talk about how to handle a negative online review, let’s start with how to prevent it. (Sounds morbid, but this is analogous to cancer-prevention. You don’t want cells metastasizing in the first place, so preventative medicine goes a long way.) Remember: “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

3 WAYS TO PREVENT IT

1. Fix Things Fast. Make it clear to everyone at your company that they treat every client, caller, and anyone with whom they have contact as if they are family members and A-list journalists. Customer service 3.0 if you will. People are empowered now, and they are intoxicated with that power–and you never know who you’re talking to. You needn’t let people walk all over you, but you need to provide A+ customer service.

2. Listen All the Time: Put your ear to the ground and listen to what people are saying. Seven days a week. Not doing this because you are “afraid of what you’ll find” could be the death knell of your business. What are people saying? Is it accurate? If someone flames your company, don’t default to: “How can we get rid of this post? Ask: “Are they right? What can we do to fix it–and build a better business?” Bad reviews provide good insights. Important note: I advise against relying too heavily on technologies for “sentiment analysis.” I speak from personal experience: At the time of this writing, even the best technologies miss critical posts, misjudge “sentiment” (e.g. human sarcasm)–and lack the human element necessary for effective brand management. Your company is too important to leave to green technologies. Put trained, human eyes on this stuff. After all, your reputation is a precious asset.

3. Do the Right Thing. When you engage in social media, be honest, care about your customers–and do the right thing. If you make a mistake, acknowledge it. Offer to fix it—and then, do it. Bring “old school” to “new media.”

3 WAYS TO HANDLE IT

1. Contact the Person Privately. Bring nothing but humility, accommodation and diplomacy to your dialog with the critic. Letting even the slightest bit of frustration or anger into the discussion will backfire (I promise). Do not focus on the review. Focus on making things right. Gone are the days when you can issue a press release to respond to crises—and be done with it. “Corporate statements” are now not only largely ineffective, they can be counterproductive. If I were advising Bank of America amidst their debit-card-disaster, I would have said: “Look, you were being greedy. Five dollars a month to use a debit card? Consumers are already spitting-angry with banks. So, do something unprecedented. Set a new standard: admit it. Apologize (and mean it). And, commit to treating customers like family. If you do that, you will win the hearts of millions. If you keep doing business-as-usual, you will continue to get pummeled–with increasingly devastating blows.” (Think they would have taken that advice? Not likely.) You can turn your most vitriolic critic into your most vocal evangelist if you have humility and listen.

2. Do Not Get Drawn Into a Fight. As Oliver Blanchard says in his must-read Social Media ROI (Que, 2011): “Never get defensive, never take attacks personally, and never allow yourself to be drawn into an argument. Present the facts calmly and professionally, monitor the impact of your activities on topics relating to your brand and overall sentiment, and either press on with your response or move on.”

3. Make a Public Statement. This is critical. It needs to be concise, civil, sophisticated and decisive. With your public statement, you’re not trying to win over the critic (although that would be nice). You are speaking to the thousands of people who are observing the conversation without contributing to it. You want to win over all of the people who are “on the fence” about your brand. Your public statement must come from a real person (e.g. Janice, Customer Service), not “ABC Corporation.” People don’t like corporate missives. Shakespeare aptly summed up effective reputation management: “Mind your speech a little lest you should mar your fortunes.”

Part of your process must be to ask current clients/customers to post reviews and ask all future customers to do the same. Sometimes, you need to call in the cavalry and get a flood of positives to dilute and marginalize the negatives. But: drip them in, lest Yelp and other review sites filter them.

Finally, in all public discourse, use the “human voice.” (To understand what that truly means, please read Cluetrain Manifesto).

All of the branding, website optimization and corporate communications pale in comparison to the hundreds of millions of people sharing their opinions in social media. An effective reputation management strategy is not something you can put off until tomorrow, because guess what?

An army of empowered consumers are defining your brand. Today.

Eric Harr is the new CBS News Social Media Expert, the author of “The Real Truth About Social Media” and the Founder & President of Resonate Social.

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