Don’t Be Afraid of Social Networks: Proactively Manage Your Company’s Reputation

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Have you ever heard the parable, The Teenager Who Brought a Company to Its Knees? Sitting on the edge of his bed watching the news, a CEO wonders how it ever got this bad. Sure, there were some problems with production, but no employees made it sound this extreme.

Several months earlier, the company, which we’ll call ACME, began to receive calls and emails about problems with a particular product. Executives followed the usual path, discussing and solving them when possible. Then, one day the calls became overwhelming, and now reporters are involved.

How did it get this bad? The answer is new media, the social networks that exist on the Internet. It began for ACME when a 15-year-old girl logged onto Facebook and started a group called “ACME Tried To Kill Me.” She outlined her dissatisfaction. Suddenly, there were others who joined the group. Soon there were hundreds of links to personal and business blogs and complaint sites.

Social networking has become a new form of contact, and although it is not direct, its impact on a business can be more than just a little annoying. It is a new form of communication that may become the next category of contacts handled by customer service. Many companies, especially those that have a high online presence, have already begun to develop policies and processes to deal with this new customer contact.

At 1-800-FLOWERS.COM, Faith Legendre, vice president of Training, proactively seeks out and utilizes social networking mediums to learn more about where she can improve training and, along the way, locates customers who may need attention. Company executives understand the impact that a complaint or post can have on repeat or new business. 1-800-FLOWERS.COM actually seeks out feedback from all possible channels and responds when appropriate. The CEO, Jim McCann, recently told of an incident where an employee was hanging out in the social environment Second Life. He saw a complaint about a customer’s flower order for his grandmother. He brought the information to the office the next day and solved the customer’s problem. Said McCann: “It does not matter where the customer comes from. We want to solve problems.”

Unsolicited feedback

The Internet today is full of opportunities to post information—both positive and negative. Social networks like Facebook, Second Life and MySpace cater to a younger audience, but the average age of users is going up. LinkedIn is quickly becoming the executive’s social networking site of choice.

There are many complaint web sites that give unhappy consumers an immediate outlet for their frustrations. Companies like Yahoo! and Amazon.com provide forums for customers to share their opinions.

So how do you prevent a social networking disaster? How do you find out what people are really saying about your company? Special software called spiders, robots, webcrawlers or wanderers—different names for computer programs that do pretty much the same thing, search through the maze of the Internet, retrieving information you’ve requested.

No executive enjoys reading criticism of an organization he or she has invested heart and soul in. But once you get over the scare and find the first set of comments about your company, you can begin to formalize a process for managing your organization’s online reputation. Consider categorizing complaints into three manageable buckets:

  • Product complaints: information that is specific to a particular product
  • Service complaints: information that is specific to poor service (call center, sales, distribution)
  • Employee postings: information posted by employees (current, former, disgruntled)

It’s not always necessary to respond to an online complaint. Whether or not you respond should be based on the size—in terms of users and popularity—of the web site and your company’s culture. You may just want to let a small personal blog posting go, but you probably should respond to a vent on a national complaint site or social network. If your company tends to be more proactive, by all means respond in a manner that takes the wind out of the customer’s sails, rather than riles the person up. Acknowledge the problem and offer a worthwhile solution.

The way you respond should be customized based on the size of your company and the issue. If you have a small company, you may want to deal with each incident personally. If you are an executive at a large company, you may need to create a team. In either case, look for trends.

Questions for getting started

Define a clear process to meet your organization’s needs:

  • What software will we utilize to find the information?
  • How do we categorize and report on the information and trends?
  • Who in the organization will manage the process?
  • When do you respond and when do you not?
  • How do we staff to this new medium?

How do you measure the issues and successful response? You may want to use your CRM ticketing system to track each complaint. For smaller firms that don’t have the resources to have a programmer develop or modify a database, your tracking device may be as simple as an jotting the information in an Excel spreadsheet or perhaps a database, like Access.

Your next decision will be how to respond. Some companies respond to the customer in the same online forum he or she vented in. By cross-referencing this information with internal systems, your customer service organization may decide to contact the customer directly. Obviously, the best resolution involves the customer logging back on to the forum and noting that the problem has been resolved.

The first step of solving the potential problem is to understand the potential impact. Do a quick search on Google to see what others are saying about your company. Just enter the company name and the words “complaints.” The results may push you to immediate action!

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