August 10, 2008

Virtual Water Cooler

By Axelsen, Micheal

IGNORE SOCIAL NETWORKING SITES AT YOUR PERIL. KEEPING AN EAR OUT FOR QUIET MURMURS OF YOUR CUSTOMERS ONLINE IS A BETTER STRATEGY THAN WAITING FOR THEM TO YELL If you are a business owner or senior manager, it's very likely you are not under 25. Most probably you did not grow up with the internet at your fingertips, but it's very likely that your next generation of customers has. And it's time for you to get in touch with the fact that this generation lives a digital life.

You may prefer to call your friends on the telephone or have coffee with them. And you know what they look like. But, there is now a generation that is entirely comfortable having friends they've never met.

These "friends" publish intimate details of their lives in discussions held entirely on the internet. The topics range widely - the birth of a child, a bad meal at a restaurant, or the mother-in- law's hair.

The conversations themselves are not new. In the past, they would have occurred around the water cooler and at Sunday afternoon barbecues in suburbia. It is the growth of social networking tools such as Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, YouTube and a dozen others that has created these "online water coolers". And these online conversations can have a powerful effect, because they stay on the internet and can be passed on to a significant number of others.

When the conversation is positive, this can be great word-of- mouth advertising. Before the arrival of the internet, there was a saying that a customer or client who had a positive experience would tell three people, but someone on the receiving end of a bad experience would tell 10.

Today, the rules and numbers have changed. One 20-something using Twitter on her mobile phone complained about the service from a retail store - while still in the store. Her 789 followers immediately received that message. Even worse for the store, the conversation now shows up in internet searches.

It is difficult for a business to respond when its customers complain of bad service before a sale consultant has even noticed them. The challenge becomes even greater when the business does not realise that the complaint has been made. But prospective customers will quickly discover these negative comments.

The reasons why

In this digital world, the most sophisticated marketing strategies are derailed by the simplest of things. As consumers become increasingly cynical, they will trust an objective opinion found on the internet rather than paid advertising.

It is hard to believe that a customer's internet forum comment that the coffee at Starbucks is "really over-rated" supports the company's brand management strategy. Elsewhere on the internet, a Gloria Jean's employee helpfully advises the use of disposable cups instead of crockery so as not to have coffee that tastes of detergent.

Small businesses can also be affected - particularly those in the restaurant trade. Restaurant reviews are often posted online by diners on sites such as "Regular people" are now restaurant reviewers, and their comments seem more objective and relevant than potentially biased and fussy professional restaurant critics. The information is very useful for diners booking a restaurant, but at the same time a poor review affects a restaurant's success.

The things people say

It is a given that businesses need to hear what their customers say. For some, it is crucial that they know immediately when comments are made. For them, professional online reputation management services such as Reputation Hawk, Reputation Defender and Cymfony exist. Such services monitor consumer-generated media (the "blogosphere") for news of your brand and activities.

There are also free tools available that will alert you when a comment is made about your business online, although this may not be timely or relevant. Such tools include Google Alerts and Yahoo Alerts, which will send an email when they find your nominated search terms. Relevant search terms might include the business or product name. Another free tool is MonitorThis, which generates a "subscription feed" across 23 search engines for your search terms.

Private forums are usually not indexed by these free tools. You may need to task a member of staff to monitor this digital world.

This person's assignment would be to join private forums and watch for comments about the business or its products. This need not be a fulltime role, but the person must be comfortable in dealing with this technology.

Deal with it

The instinctive business reaction to post a hot and angry response is usually the least effective option. Even when a statement is completely defamatory and misrepresents the facts, you should always keep in mind that the potential audience is not simply the author of the comment. Without context, the reply will seem negative to others, and a comment, once made, is frequently difficult to remove.

In September 2007, accounting software firm 2Clix sued the founder of for not removing comments about 2Clix made by forum members (including 2Clix's own salespeople). The lawsuit was quickly dropped but has had lasting damage.

For the record, sending an email to a customer that reads "your are an idiot we don't need your feedback" (sic) is always going to end in tears.

Therefore, it's extremely important that employees are aware of their responsibilities when participating on social networking sites. The business should set out its clear expectations to employees who are using the business' name online. Some businesses may be less than happy, for instance, at having a search for their name return a result about providing advice on "how to pick up chicks on Facebook".

It may be best to simply note the issue and work towards ensuring it does not recur. Exercising legal muscle on website hosts will rarely serve any practical purpose except to alienate the only people with ultimate control over the comments. A polite email or telephone call may be more fruitful, but this approach can be dangerous if interpreted as an attempt to limit free speech. In any event, should the offending comment be removed, it will likely reappear elsewhere, together with strong some criticism for the removal of the original post. Once a comment is released into the wild it is very difficult to remove.

Engagement with the author of a comment

Search-engine optimisation services can be used to reduce the rankings of negative comments in search-engine results. Here, the ranking of the offending comment will be so low in search results that most prospective customers will never see it. The ethics of this approach are questionable, and it can be very expensive, can backfire quite spectacularly, and does not remove the comment or create a happy customer.

A polite response requesting the commenter to speak directly to a senior member of staff to resolve the issue is usually effective. Such a delicate conversation should not take place electronically, as the discussion can quickly become a flame war. A polite response shows both aggrieved and prospective customers that the business is serious about its reputation and customer issues.

Your approach needs to be honest and transparent, and of course be sure to research the issue thoroughly. Appallingly, but not surprisingly, such comments sometimes come from a direct competitor.

Never impersonate a customer, or create false users to give the impression of a positive outcome when that is false. This action will be discovered and dealt with harshly by the denizens of the digital world. It is not honest or transparent to invent "pretend friends" to be your advocate. If a debate is needed, you should consider gathering up genuine online friends of the business to assist.

If the issue can be resolved, request the customer to post a genuine follow-up message outlining their experience with the response taken. If this is not possible, you should post an honest and factual follow-up outlining the response taken.

A digital business

In the end, your reputation is one of the most valuable assets you have. If a horde of people descended on your business and handed flyers out to prospective customers telling them to avoid your business, you would do something about it.

The new social networking tools give comments made by customers reach and immediacy in the digital world. The social networking phenomenon has only just begun. These tools are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and their use is growing exponentially. Online reputation management is about knowing what is said in the digital world about your business and your brand, and responding appropriately.

Maintaining an active relationship with digital customers is not easy. Listening to the quiet murmurs of your customers at online water coolers will help your business build a strong reputation for service and quality. Just be sure to hear your customers while they're still murmuring - don't wait for them to yell.

' It is the growth of social networking tools such as Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, YouTube and a dozen others that has creati these "online water coolers"'


Micheal Axelsen's blog, is devoted to the management of information and information systems.

Micheal Axelsen is director of Applied Insight Pty Ltd, and provides business systems consulting services to clients. He is also an FCPA (specialist in Information technology), chair of the CPA Australia information technology & management centre of excellence, but sometimes cannot find his car keys.

Copyright CPA Australia Jul 2008

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