I'm often to be found banging on to clients about how important it is for them to manage their online reputation. I bang on because it is hard for most to prioritize this task when there doesn't seem to be any urgency.
Then one day, because you simply can't please everybody, a negative review appears somewhere on the web and all hell breaks lose.
My general thrust is this. Encourage your customers to write reviews so that, around the web, a solid foundation of positive comments builds up. That way when "one day" comes it will be a negative review in a sea of positive ones.
OTT reputation management
If you want to see how fanatic some companies are about maintaining their online reputation you don't need to look much further than the US gadget retailer KlearGear.
In their terms of sale they stated individuals cannot take "any action that negatively impacts KlearGear.com, its reputation, products, services, management or employees".
In other words if you buy from them, no matter what happens, you can't write a bad review!
Reputation management by force
Now someone up at KlearGear had the bright idea of trying to take control of their online reputation by coercion. If anyone had said anything bad about them they would come down on those critics like a ton of bricks.
But things went a little pear shaped for KlearGear when this policy became big news.
The story to really hit the headlines was that of Jen Palmer who they tried to fine $3,500 for her negative review on ripoffreport.com. When she didn't pay they contacted credit agencies to try and have her rating marked down.
Trouble is that kind of tale makes for good reading and within days the story was circulating on dozens of news sites including the BBC.
Reputation management is an art
Using muscle to try and silence your critics does, as almost any failed dictator will tell you, only work for so long. KlearGear's approach will probably go down as the company's worst PR disaster of all time if it manages to survive the current media onslaught and the inevitable slump in sales that will be its result.
Online reputation management is a fine art. Positive reviews and comments are to be thanked (and of course linked to). Negative critics are to be managed as any attack on them is likely to result in further retributions.
And these retributions can snowball at an incredible rate on the internet as you can see if you read the comments section of the this blog post at Popehat. In fact things got so bad that KlearGear had to shut down their own Facebook page and Twitter feed.
This is no different to the offline world. Something went wrong here and a customer felt aggrieved. KlearGear needed to take control by finding out what their mistake was, put it right and compensate the unhappy client.
Note I'm not actually saying KlearGear were in the wrong, they may not have been. But the customer is king and if the customer feels you are in the wrong it is up to you as a provider to make good and review things for the future.
A chance to learn
A prime example of this lies in my own experience. Three years ago I search engine optimized a website for an Australian removals firm. Within six weeks they went from nowhere to Google's top three for their chosen keyword phrase. Job done, that was the end of our working relationship.
Two years later I received a highly abusive email from the client because he was now on page three of the search results. He had made numerous changes to his website that helped lead to the downfall and of course there had been no SEO work for 24 months so does that mean he was in the wrong?
No, it means I failed to manage his expectations about what SEO was in terms of an ongoing process and I failed to educate him in the dangers of making changes to his website that could affect his rankings.
But by this time he was so emotionally charged that such actions were too little too late.
It remained important, however, that I realised my failings and put in place processes so the situation could not reoccur.
The idea of threatening him with a fine should he say anything online never crossed my mind, but it did for someone at KlearGear...
Make unhappy customers praise you
Now, according to techcrunch.com KlearGear is has (or rather had) sales of $47 million which should have given it the ability to do what most large corporates do - turn angry customers into ones that love you.
It's a simple principle, make the customer feel that their error has hurt you.
Here's one example from my life. I bought a glass cafeteria from John Lewis (UK) and after a few days the spout cracked. I assumed that I had probably knocked it while washing up and bought another one.
A few days later the same thing happened again, another cracked spout. I went back to the shop with my latest damaged item and explained the situation.
Now I had thrown away the first cafeteria and had no idea where the receipt was, I was only hoping for a refund on my latest purchase.
Without flinching the shop assistant refunded me for both.
I could have been a grumbling customer whittling on about the poor quality products John Lewis sell but instead I'm a walking, talking advertisement for them. Full of confidence that is I do purchase anything there that is below par it won't cost me, it will cost them.