The Internet, social media, and product and service reviews are now staples in consumer behavior. I routinely use them, and there have been times where a product or service review is the sole criteria by which I make a purchasing decision…….or more importantly, choose not to make a purchasing decision. And while this contemporary word of mouth is a repackaging of recommendations of yesteryear, the speed and reach of recommendations are greater than ever. And this is precisely why small businesses should be paying attention.
A recent story out of Texas highlights just how explosive an electronic reputation can be. A couple hired a pet sitting company to care for their two dogs. Dissatisfied with the service, the couple left a 1-star review on Yelp. What followed was a lawsuit by the pet sitting company for 1 million dollars against the couple. While the lawsuit was ultimately dismissed, it raised the profile, and criticism of the company, significantly. And if you were to imagine that a majority of people who weighed in on the matter were furious with the company, you’d be right.
We’ve come to expect, rightly or not, that we can say what we want online with impunity, even if potentially defamatory. And for small businesses whose survival often depends on reputation, vigilance and pragmatism are key. While the company above may have been vigilant, they missed the pragmatism part.
Managing Your Electronic Reputation
You are probably familiar with the heavy hitters. Amazon, TripAdvisor, Google, and Yelp. And while these naturally should be on your radar and reviewed regularly, consider the movement of your name and imagery through Instagram, Snap Chat, and Facebook. An unflattering picture can be exponentially more devastating than a poor review.
Many companies integrate notification tools to alert you when something is mentioned about your business. Google Alerts, while not specifically designed for reputation monitoring, allows you to set keyword alerts. When the keyword is found in a Google search for the first time, you are sent a notification. A simple notification with the business name or key employee name can be useful.
Actively engaging with your social media accounts can provide insight into what perceptions exist about your business. This engagement will also provide an opportunity to interact with your business’s community; marketing and networking all businesses should be doing. A simple search of your business’s name using a few of the large Internet search engines can also be revealing.
If you have neither the time nor inclination to monitor your electronic reputation, there are several companies that will perform the service for you. While not necessarily practical for all small businesses, in instances where online reputation is critical, it is worth investigating options for professional monitoring.
At one time or another, every business will be hit with a review or comment that is unflattering, or even false. This can be particularly traumatic for small businesses who are often working as hard as possible to please as many as possible. Couple the personal devastation of a poor electronic reputation with the actual economic consequences and it becomes clear why business owners react as discussed above.
But, a reaction may be exactly what is wanted. Trolls, in electronic parlance, scour the Internet looking for opportunities to incite electronic riots by leaving hateful, harmful or inflammatory comments or reviews. Businesses are targets just as are individuals. Whether troll or patron, it is important to have a process for responding to negative electronic information.
First, define those situations in which you’ll respond. You may choose to only respond to reviews or information that are factually based as those are the easiest to counter and don’t come off as defensive as responses based on opinions. Also, consider the prevalence of the reputation. One negative review or piece of information amongst hundreds of positive reviews is likely to have very little impact on your business. Ignoring negative electronic information, whether positive or negative, is also an option. Let performance in your industry and clientele dictate whether you want to get involved in responding as it will take time and resources.
You should also consider your response. Imagine a business which offered a $10 gift card as compensation for an ‘unfortunate experience.’ You would see an immediate increase in customers with unfortunate experiences. Thank for positive reviews and attempt to take negative reviews outside the electronic universe. If appropriate, leave the name and contact information of a person positioned to address the issue. Consumers realize that things happen, and a business that is willing to provide direct contacts for problem resolution is often exactly what consumers are looking for. Electronic reputation is just a conversation, and like with conversations, there are times to participate and times to avoid.
Crafty businesses have even gone so far as to enter into agreements with consumers restricting what consumers can say about a business…but more about this in a moment.
Unfortunately, there will be times when a business must look beyond these strategies and explore legal options.
Keeping in mind that it may be impossible to identify the source of a mark against your electronic reputation, there are limited legal options available if you know the identity of the person.
If a person has made false statements against you or your business that are based on fact, and you can show harm from those statements, you may be able to bring a lawsuit for defamation. The law on defamation has some nuances so you should speak with an attorney experienced in defamation law if you believe you have been harmed. And while it is possible to bring a defamation claim in small claims court, preparation for the matter should at the very least include a short consultation with an attorney to ensure you have all the appropriate evidence and to avoid being caught up on your own legal battle as further discussed below. Of course, if the damage is significant enough, the matter can also be brought in superior court.
California, like other states, takes free speech seriously. Passed over two decades ago, California law allows a party exercising his or her speech rights to ask the court to stop a legal action where the legal action promotes a restriction on speech. This is known as an anti-SLAPP action. If the court allows the anti-SLAPP action, the person bringing the lawsuit for defamation, for example, could be responsible to the other person for attorney fees.
Imagine you are a small business tired of negative online reviews. One reviewer was particularly critical. To show you aren’t going to take it, you file a defamation lawsuit against the reviewer. The reviewer contacts an attorney who in turn serves you with an anti-SLAPP motion. If the court sides with the reviewer, your defamation complaint is dismissed, and you are required to pay the legal fees of the reviewer, which can be quite expensive. While this oversimplifies a complex area of the law, it should at least give you pause before firing off a lawsuit against someone who is hurting your electronic reputation.
In addition to anti-SLAPP, California law prohibits contracts that attempt to restrict what a consumer can say about goods or services. Businesses who utilize such contracts can be subject to significant fines.
Complaints about businesses are not new. What is relatively new is the ease at which a reputation can be tarnished. What was previously word of mouth can now reach millions in a matter of hours crippling a business. While a single bad review or negative comment will likely have limited impact, this should not justify the lack of a process to monitor your electronic reputation. Monitor regularly and respond sparingly. It’s hard to resist defending your reputation, but there are numerous instances where it has done more harm than good. If you are left with no other choice but legal action, consult with a trusted attorney. The penalties and financial risk associated with an attempt to restrict speech should not be considered without professional advice.