Welcome to my new time slot! After some discussion we’ve decided that pushing me to the weekend was a good call. We’ll see how it goes. Last week I gave you a heady piece about online society. I sort of stepped around some salient points about the relationship between businesses and social media, and decided to revisit that topic this week with some practical advice. When I first started writing here I had mistakenly believed that nobody would “like” their dentist on Facebook. It might have been true when I said it, but the last couple years have proved me wrong. Most people use social media to journal their activities, and going to the dentist is no less interesting than going out to lunch.
I believe the most relevant idea from last time is that the Internet breeds honesty. You are often asked to walk this unfair line of selling yourself without looking like you are selling yourself. A less frustrating view of this situation might be to recognize that what is so important in 21st century business is to simply be the kind of person people want to give their money to. Don’t sell yourself; be yourself. The first and last rule of managing your online presence is be likeable. Care more about being human than being a business and people will respond well to that.
Don’t Be Hurt
Of course, all of the above is easy to remember when things are going well. I think its important to point out one of the big mistakes made by small businesses is the way they respond to negative feedback on the Internet, (I know it’s been a discussion around these parts before). There can be something violating about a negative comment left in a public place that is a little more hurtful than other critical customer interactions. One, you feel like your own trust has been violated – there is a distinct “talking behind your back” quality to feedback and reviews left online. If a customer had a problem, why were they not comfortable complaining in person? And why did they prefer to blab about to everyone but you? To some of you, Yelp! probably seems less like a service and more like somebody added a wall to your office just so people could leave grafitti.
Behave as Though You Were Face-to-Face
A lot gets said about how the anonymity of the Internet can bring out the worst in people – don’t let it happen to you. A key point is to imagine that the complainer did complain in person. It happens everywhere – at some point you came into conflict with an irate customer, their anger possibly justified, possibly not, (in most such situations the reality is somewhere in between; you performed a slight disservice, and then they proceeded to overreact). My assumption is that these situations are always handled diplomatically. You don’t stoop to their anger, but are instead apologetic without giving up your authority or allowing your employees to be verbally abused.
It is strange that a private, in-person complaint would be responded to so courteously, and then a publicly visible complaint on the Internet might be handled childishly. The absolute worst thing you can do is respond negatively to any feedback. If somebody writes a scathing review of your practice and you have a forum to respond, take the time to demonstrate to the world just how polite and rational you are. At the end of the day, the complainer is less likeable than the diplomat, and you will look like the better party. Let people see that you are human and remember that how you take responsiblity for mistakes is more telling of your character than the mistakes themselves.
The second point is not to lie. This never works; the Internet savagely sniffs out dishonesty. A few years ago I was looking up reviews of local car dealerships and the comments left on one of them told an embarassing story. A customer would complain, in detail, and name specific employees who had annoyed the customer. The next comment would be glowing, a complete reversal of the previous comment, curiously naming the same employees that the complaint did, citing them as paragons of virtue. The next comment would be a complaint, followed again by a positive review that was the complete inverse of the complaint, then another complaint, then another glowing review, making sure to name all the employees that may have been named in the previous complaint. Finally, there was a note left by the review site that comments had been closed for that business on the grounds that the owner was fabricated positive reviews, (obviously). Before, that dealership would have, at worst, looked like they had shaky customer service. Now they look childish and stupid. Forever.
To be perfectly blunt, ignoring online feedback is a legitimate strategy. What gets a lot of small businesses in a tizzy is that fact that a lot of feedback is, well, stupid. People put much more effort into complaining than leaving positive feedback. As a customer, when I read reviews online, I have to do my own work to distinguish useful reviews from idiocy, (Aside: here’s my strategy for restaurant reviews: When positive reviews praise the food and negative reviews complain about service – the restaurant is good. When it’s the other way around, steer clear. Complaints about price are neutral – everybody complains about that). I can’t tell you that all of your potential customers take the same care that I do, but try to believe that the kind of satisfied people who are too busy to leave you some positive feedback are also the kind of people who take Internet complaints lightly.
Instead focus on the positive. When you receive a glowing review, save it. Put it on your Facebook page or twitter feed or website or whatever other media you use to present your practice. You will receive less positive feedback than negative, that’s just the nature of complaining, but you can make the positive reviews louder, and I don’t think there’s anything dishonest about that.