By Barry Moltz
For most of the last century, consumers believed what a company said in its advertisements. A business might hire an advertising agency on Madison Avenue (ala "Mad Men") to come up with a slick slogan delivered by a celebrity in order to influence what the customer would buy.
The Internet has allowed society to move from this one way medium to a more conversational one. It is not surprising that 97% of customers review products online before buying. But, what may be a surprise is the exact information they are researching. Consumers are not only looking at the latest features, prices and availability. They want to know what other consumers are saying about the product and the company. Today, these reviews have a higher level of credibility than any company directed advertising and most directly influence what the consumer eventually buys. Ninety-two percent of consumers say they trust "earned media" (word-of-mouth and recommendations from friends and family) above all other forms of advertising.customerservice
This peer review system has become familiar for anyone using sites such as Yahoo! Local, Amazon, eBay, Trip Advisor or Yelp. Consumers value the "human voice" more than any corporate messaging. In addition, Yahoo! search engine results about a particular company or product never fade; they can be found forever!
These days, the immediate electronic delivery of products and fast worldwide shipments of goods makes most products commodities since they are available across vast geographies. Price competition has become intense. This presents a huge challenge for most small business owners, as they now have to compete to make a profit against the entire world. As a result, the only truly sustainable competitive advantage for any small business is their customer service. 70% of customers are willing to spend more with companies that provide excellent customer service. It has become their most powerful marketing tool.
Make no mistake. Consumers are talking online about your business. The familiar statistic was that an unhappy customer would tell 7 people. Now through social media and online review sites, they can tell 7 million people! But a small business owner can use this to their advantage to boost their customer service by following these 4 steps:
1. Listen and Learn. Sign up for a trusted reputation management service like the new Yahoo! Marketing Dashboard to see what people are saying about your business (and your competitors!) Let go of the fear of what your customers' are saying and track your reputation across the entire web. Read the good and bad comments, so you can be ready to take action.
2. Engage Constructively. Thank your businesses fans and encourage them to spread the word about your company. Answer comments from your business critics by acknowledging the issue and offering a remedy if appropriate. Remaining silent to critics is not an advantage. For example, the best hotels on Trip Advisor address every negative comment constructively.
3. Join the Conversation. Be helpful in any area where your business has expertise. Give advice frequently without selling anything. This will solidify your relationships with customers and prospects so they are more likely to buy from you.
4. Track It Over Time. See if your social media efforts are leading to more positive comments. Find out where the comments and reviews are coming from so you can focus your attention (and possibly your advertising) on those sites.
How have you managed your reputation on the web to offer better customer service?
[This article is part of a series on online marketing, reputation, measurement and campaigns. Part 2: "The Path To Recommendation - What Every Small Business Needs To Know"]
Barry Moltz has founded and run small businesses with a great deal of success and failure for more than 20 years. He now gets small businesses unstuck and moving forward again.