With the number of blogs growing faster than the population of India, (no kidding, it really is! at double the rate in fact!) it's becoming absolutely essential that even the smallest businesses put together a plan of action for both tracking and responding to any comments that their customers might be making about them online. I've written in the past about the potential impact of both good blog posts and bad blog posts and anyone that has personally experienced either knows that the power of the consumer is nothing to scoff at. But when time is limited and money is scarce, how do you go about managing your own reputation online without the help of a PR firm?

That's what has led to this three part series that focuses on taking the common sense tenets found in Dale Carnegie's best-seller "How to Win Friends and Influence People" and applying them to various forms of online marketing. In part one of this series I talked about how to apply Carnegie's tenets to link baiting and link building. In part two, I looked at some more of Carnegie's bits of advice and applied them to viral marketing. This week it's online reputation management and once again, we'll be looking at some of Carnegie's tenets and how they can be applied with common sense to keeping your online reputation intact.

Online Reputation Management

Online reputation management is one of those terms that can send small (and even large) business owners into a frenzy of worry. The idea that one of your customers, or worse yet, your competitors may be saying things about you to potential customers can be a scary one. Add in the pressure to know exactly how, when and even where to respond to these posts and you've got enough confusion and fear to make anyone want to look the other way. On the other hand, there's also the challenge of keeping tabs on the impact that good posts or comments have on your business.

While it may be challenging to figure out the best way to use technology to track and find all those comments, dealing with them really does boil down to a few simple gems of wisdom. Once again, this is where Carnegie's ideas serve as essential reminders.

Tenet #1: Never criticize, condemn or complain.

This one may be the hardest tenets to deal with when it comes to people making posts or comments about your company. No one likes to be criticized and ironically, that tends to include the people that are making the criticisms. With that in mind, it's important to remember that criticism makes people naturally feel defensive and resentful. Thus, if you want to have any hope of reaching some type of positive outcome, you'll need to look past your own defensiveness and resentfulness so that you can take the higher ground and raise your chances of having a good outcome.

So what's the takeaway from this tenet? Basically that you need to be very careful in how you approach the person that is making comments about you online. Don't fire off an angry email as soon as you see their post. Instead, take the time to consider what's being said and to very carefully frame a response that is open-minded and shows a willingness to work to rectify the situation.

Tenet #2: Be a good listener.

This is also a very difficult tenet to live by when people are out there saying bad things about your company or your products. That said, it's absolutely essential that you carefully listen to what's being said and that you consider whether or not any of it is valid. The idea of being a good listener also needs to be incorporated in any conversation that you have with the person making the comments. Whether you are asking for clarification, or looking to engage in dialogue, make sure that you are respectfully listening to everything that they have to say.

Being listened to makes people feel validated. Ask them pointed questions and make it clear that they have your undivided attention. Often, people let loose their frustrations online because they don't feel like their concerns have been addressed elsewhere. Chances are high that if you take the time to show that you're willing to listen and to work through a solution, you'll find yourself having a much easier time accomplishing your goal.

Tenet #3: Avoid arguments: you can only lose.

There are many reasons why arguments are a bad idea. One of the primary reasons is because people that start arguments often do so because they feel very strongly about their initial position. When you try to engage them in any type of debate or further argument, you'll simply drive them to further defend and embrace their position, making it even more difficult for you to come up with a solution. Additionally, even if you "win" the argument, it's likely going to be at the expense of the other person's pride which leads to resentment rather than respect.

Thus, it's a very good idea to "welcome" the argument as a chance to analyze your own business practices. To do that you'll need to make sure that you are staying calm, open minded and that you are carefully listening. Try to identify some areas that you both agree on and use those a launch pad for some suggested solutions. It's important to remember that if you are willing to take the first step toward admitting that you were wrong, your opponent will be more likely to follow suit and admit his/her own mistakes.

Tenet #4: If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.

This is one of the key points to any type of positive customer service solution and the power of this tenet should not be underestimated. In fact, a customer that sees a quick and helpful solution to a problem is actually MORE likely to become a loyal repeat customer than someone that simply has an average experience to begin with. A great case in point of this tenet in action actually happened to me just this week.

I was taking a fleece pullover down to a local embroidery place to have the Search Engine Guide logo stitched on so that I could take it with me to San Jose next week. While there, I found out that the store had been taken over by new owners. I'd really liked the previous owners and had had excellent service from them for the past few years. So much so that I was still willing to drive the 30 minutes to the store after my husband and I moved to the country.

You can imagine my despair when I went in a few days later to pick up my fleece and found that the Search Engine Guide logo had been mangled beyond belief. Not only was the text and background color completely wrong, but "puppy" had gone from being a cute little rottweiler to being varying shades of bright blue. I was so astonished that I actually blurted out "wow, that couldn't BE more wrong!" the second that I saw it.

The owner was at my side in seconds to find out what the problem was. As it turns out, their computer malfunctioned and printed out the wrong thread colors for the print order. It really wasn't their "fault" it was just one of those things that sometimes happens. Nonetheless, the owner apologized profusely and promised to buy me a new fleece and to restitch that very day so that I'd still have it in time for my trip. It wasn't but a few hours later that I had a perfect puppy fleece ready to pack.

Their quick and genuine response to the problem was a deciding factor for me. While I'd been prepared to move my business to a closer embroidery shop, I decided that because of their excellent customer service, I'd be happy to continue driving down to the store for future orders. This was a company that really understood reputation management.

Which leads to my own personal philosophy of online reputation management. Once again, we'll call it...Jen's Tenet.

Jen's Tenet: You catch more flies with honey

As with my other articles, the reality is that all of Carnegie's tenets can be summed up in one simple idea. In this case, it's the idea of winning people over by worrying more about playing nice than "being right." Sometimes you've got to swallow your pride, sometimes you have to stand up for what's right, but either way, you have to be certain that you are carefully considering how your attitude will play with the people you are speaking to.

Sending off an angry email based on your initial reaction to a critical blog post can actually end up making the situation worse. Bloggers usually have no qualms over the idea of posting those emails and of using them to further their cause. That's why it's essential that you carefully consider the way that you respond to what someone has said about you online. Basically, you need to make sure that you'd be ok with having the entire world read your response, because it's quite possible that they will.

Overall, link building, viral marketing and online reputation management are more about common sense and and understanding of people than they are about any magical marketing techniques. By taking the time to give a little thought to the way you respond, you'll find yourself seeing far better results and far more positive outcomes than you would if you simply let your emotions get the best of you.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

August 4, 2006

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > How to Win Links and Influence People - Part 3