Four fifths of customers will research a small business online before doing business with them.
This is according to new figures from O2, which has found that online reputation and customer service are key to small business success.
The communication firm’s survey suggests that seven out of ten consumers ‘never forgive a small business if they experience bad service’. Meanwhile almost 70 per cent will share bad experiences with an average of eight friends and family.
The survey highlights the importance of a strong online presence. In our recent Tech SME guide we set out the key ways in which businesses can get online, and in our Online Marketing on a Shoestring guide we explained how to make the internet work for you. But, with online reputation such a key factor in consumers’ buying decisions, how can you make sure that you are properly represented on the internet?
1. Make yourself available
Your current and potential customers increasingly live online, and it is vital that you are available there. Make sure that you are signed up to the key networks and platforms on which your customers might expect to find you. This is likely to include Twitter and Facebook, but might also involve you signing up to platforms like Pinterest. Remember that these are marketing channels except, unlike traditional marketing, they represent a two-way conversation. Be prepared to engage with customers here, and to offer great service online as well as offline.
2. Don’t underestimate online reviews
It might sound counter-intuitive, but complaints can be one of the most important tools in the customer service arsenal. They represent a period during which a customer is engaged with your business and, if treated correctly, they can turn from frustration into brand advocacy very quickly.
People are increasingly likely to complain online, and it is important that you manage these occurrences properly. Dedicate time to complaints, and consider what you can do to repair the customer’s view of your business. If you can appease them, they are likely to shout even louder about your business.
Peter Mühlmann, CEO of online review platform Trustpilot says, ‘Online reviews are an easy way for small businesses to market themselves as credible and trustworthy online. Many businesses underestimate the power of online reviews, but the reality is that most consumers are more likely to trust a recommendation from a peer than a brand’s marketing spiel.
‘A constant feedback loop with consumers can be a real source of innovation for companies of all sizes, taking stock of honest reviews and making internal and external changes to address them.
We have seen on many occasions that one strong, considered response to a negative review can have more of an impact on advocacy than several positive ones.’
3. Use Google Alerts
Google’s Alerts service enables you to keep track of mentions of your brand online. The service will email you each time specific keywords appear on the internet, with a link to the place in which the mention occurred.
This is one of the key ways in which you can keep abreast of the ways your firm is being talked about.
Set up Google Alerts for your key brand keywords. You should also regularly use tools like Twitter Search, or set up a column in a service like Hootsuite to track mentions of your brand on Twitter.
If you are really serious about keeping track of online activity, you might also investigate one of the numerous paid social media monitoring tools available, such as Radian6.
4. …and Google Places
Google Places is becoming one of the most important ways in which local businesses are noticed online. The service offers a picture of your premises, a map, and a star rating based on Google reviews.
It also provides links to other reviews from sites like Time Out and TripAdvisor.
It is important that you sign up to Google Places, and that your premises is properly listed. It is also vital that you monitor reviews placed on sites that Google Places lists, as the service has significantly increased their visibility. Read below for more information on responding to reviews.
5. Investigate sector-specific sites
In addition to Google and other search engines like Bing, there may be sector-specific sites and services that you should investigate. For example, tradespeople can list themselves and receive feedback on sites like Rated People.
Investigate the sites that apply to your business, and make sure that you monitor mentions of your company on them. These can also be a key means by which niche businesses can drive custom.
6. Don’t be aggressive
Responding to negative feedback can be a difficult tightrope on which to walk. You want to appease unhappy customers, but at the same time there may be circumstances in which there is little you can do. It should be easy to identify users that are simply ‘trolling’. In these situations it tends to make sense to simply ignore them.
If, however, you think you can repair a customer’s view of your business by responding, you should do so. Remember that aggression or frustration are never productive here. Instead, try to enter into a reasonable discussion, and offer the customer something suitable to help make the problem right, for example a discount, or a repeat of work done.
7. Secure your name
Finally, it is important that you take steps to protect your name online. There is a range of key ways in which you can do this, paramount amongst which is registering your business’s domain name. You can do this cheaply and easily using one of the many domain registrars on the market.
You might also consider registering variations of your name to prevent domain ‘squatting’. You should also ensure that you register your ‘handle’ on key sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.
Even if you don’t intend to use the platforms yet, by registering your presence you can help to prevent nefarious users acting in your name.
Further reading on reputation management
Small businesses not so hot on reputation management
More than three quarters of small companies consider having a good online reputation as important to their business, but two fifths never check online reviews of their company.
Around 15 per cent of small and medium-sized companies have already experienced some form of negative comment online, whether that be poor reviews, malicious content from competitors or negative media coverage, according to insurer Zurich’s SME Index.
Additionally, more than one in five (21 per cent) of SME decision makers say that their business has been contacted online by someone who they thought was trying to scam the company.
Britain’s small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are waking up to the consequences of this issue; almost one in ten (9 per cent) already pay someone to manage their online reputation, with a further 9 per cent expecting to do so in the next 12 months.
The research shows how seriously some firms take this emerging threat as 12 per cent of those who are paying a third party to manage their reputation online pay £2,000 or more a month.
SMEs of all sizes might be getting more marketing-savvy though, as despite only 15 per cent of them experiencing negative online, 41 per cent of believe that having a good online reputation will be more important to their business by this time next year.
Richard Coleman, managing director of Zurich’s commercial broker business says, ‘Online reputation is an increasing worry for SMEs, many of whom are only just getting to grips with managing a social media presence and a website, let alone the effects of negative content posted about their company.
‘In a world where the consumer is increasingly guided by what they can easily find out online – think about review sites such as Tripadvisor and Trustatrader – SMEs need to get to grips with their own online presence and how to manage it.’