With commercial power now shifting to the consumer, individuals can have a profound negative impact on a businesses reputation in the market place. How do companies cope with this fundamental change?

As more companies venture into the social media space, the fear of negative sentiment looms large. Any misstep can be blogged about, shared, tweeted, and retweeted in a matter of hours, leaving a company’s online reputation in tatters. Consumers can now potentially command a large audience, as they become a key person of influence in their specialist area. In the past, a disgruntled customer would tell ten friends about a bad experience, now that customer can communicate their anger with tens of thousands of followers in seconds.

Recently prominent blogger C.C. Chapman wrote a post titled Ragu Hates Dads, in reference to a campaign the Italian sauce company were running about what it’s like when dads cook. They made some online mistakes that were outlined in his blog post and follow-up blog posts, and then amplified by C.C.’s large following. This is every company’s worst online nightmare.

When these negative posts arise, many companies don’t know what to do. Some choose to fire fight by arguing, and some respond by deleting the comments if that’s possible (for example, in a post on a Facebook Page or blog comment). None of these responses are a good choice. Deleting or ignoring negative feedback will only increase the negative experience from the customer. And if discovered, will exacerbate the situation.

What should a company do when negative blog entries, tweets or Facebook comments are posted about their brand? Deb Ng, author of Online Community Management for Dummies, says, “There are different types of negative comments. For example, a positive, respectful comment or discussion offering feedback regarding a negative experience should never be swept under the rug. Thank the community member offering the feedback and let them know you're going to look in to the matter.”

Have a policy


An important aspect of participating in social media is having a disaster plan. If you are responsible for your company’s social media efforts, you need to make these plans immediately. What will you do if and when negative sentiments arise?  Who will be notified and at what point? A study by Econsultancy found that only 34% of companies surveyed escalate issues raised in social media so that the responsible team is notified.

Your policy should include:

  • How quickly you will respond.  If you want to respond to customers within the hour of tweeting or posting, make sure you have a team monitoring the space or have an alert system in place.

  • When you respond.  Are you responding to every negative tweet?  For larger brands this can be challenging but it can be done.

  • How an issue is escalated.  When is it necessary to bring in another department?  What tools does the social media team have in place to help the customer?  When do you take the issue offline with a phone call or e-mail?  Document all these processes so that all departments are on the same page.


Not only do you need an internal policy for how negative comments are handled, but you need an external policy to show your community how you will operate in the social space. Outline the terms of use on individual platforms such as Facebook Page posts, Google+ Pages, blog comments, and Tweets.

It’s also important to remember that a negative post can help you improve your product or service. Marcy Cohen of Sony Electronics, has this to say about their philosophy when receiving negative comments:  “At Sony Electronics we care what our community of fans think about our brand, our products and services. Whether they are sharing their excitement upon purchasing a new Sony product or their disappointment when a product doesn’t work the way they expected, we learn from any kind of feedback.

“As community managers, it is our responsibility to set the tone and purpose of our social media platforms. The strategic management of negative comments is an integral part of that. If there is an issue that needs to be handled, we have several resources we are able to utilize. Those include representatives from our Sony Listens customer support team who are who are present on our social channels every day. It also includes steering certain comments to our forums or ratings and reviews.”

Just because these are social spaces doesn’t mean that a disgruntled customer should be able to hassle other members of the community or post spam on your Facebook wall. Ekaterina Walters of Intel says:  “Having moderation guidelines in place for your Facebook page is critical! You cannot create your own terms and conditions for your page (Facebook requires everyone to comply with their T&Cs), but you can specify what kinds of behaviors will not be tolerated within your community.

“For example, on our Intel Facebook page we outline the list of posts that will be taken down like abusive remarks, offensive language, fraudulent posts, spam, commercial solicitations, link-baiting, etc. Intel’s Social Media Guidelines also include “the good, the bad, but not the ugly” rule, which states that no matter what forum the discussion takes place in, we will leave the positive comments and the negative comments, but not abusive, foul, and inappropriate comments.”

Post your social media policy publicly so that your community knows the rules.  Many companies put their Facebook policy on the Info tab of their Facebook Page.  You may choose to create a separate tab with your Policy to highlight it as Dove did on their Facebook Page:



In the Econsultancy’s State of the Social Report 2011, they reported that 52% of companies surveyed were using Facebook for reacting to customer issues and inquiries compared to only 29% last year. Many consumers have long ago realized that it is easier for them to tweet with a brand to get customer service than going through other channels.

Guy Kawasaki, author of Enchantment:  The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions, says, ”Social media is raising the expectations of customer service and the ability to meet these expectations. For example, if you mention a bad experience on Twitter or Google+, you expect a response from the company. And, fortunately, companies like Dell and Comcast have proven that the companies can in fact meet these expectations.”

With the accessibility of online reviews, the average consumer has a much bigger voice and can have a profound effect on brands. In a recent Nielsen study, 70% of the people surveyed had some degree of trust in consumer opinions posted online. And 90% trusted recommendations from people they knew. When those reviews are negative, sales can suffer.

Use social media monitoring tools


But how do you track this online sentiment and find the people who are posting about your brand?  There are literally hundreds of social media monitoring tools available, both free and paid. In Twitter the easiest way is to monitor the stream is by using keyword searches. Google Alerts can help you monitor blog posts and website posts about your brand. Facebook has a search tool that can track public posts, but will not track posts made by private personal profiles. And Social Mention is another free tool that tracks mentions across several social sites.

The take-away from all this is that companies need to have some social monitoring plan in place so they can track online comments, deal with negative buzz before it becomes a problem, and control their reputation. Online customer service is here to stay and the sooner brands can put their policy in place and start listening and participating, the better positioned they are to deliver a world-class experience to their customer.

 

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For more information on how you can preserve your corporate reputation and communicate effectively when in crisis, check out the Reputation Preservation and Crisis Communications Summit, taking place on the 5th-6th March in New York. Featuring 20+ global VPs of Corporate Communications from companies like P&G, Best Buy, Eli Lilly, Alcoa and many more. For more detail on this high-level conference go here.

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