The Twilight Zone of Reputation Management

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Preserving and enhancing the reputation of a business has entered a new twilight zone with social media. The websites that focus in this arena are a moving target, as are the search engines that track social media.

There are four basic types of reputation management entities. There are those like Angie’s List and Yelp that see themselves as pro-consumer. Then there are other entities such as Customer Lobby that are pro-business. The search engines are actually the best at staying neutral. The last type of reputation management firms are those that scrape the internet looking for negative comments, identifying them to the corporate client and suggesting methods to combat or alleviate the negative publicity.

Angie’s List is a closed subscription network and it is for that reason that I do not foresee the reviews there being picked up by the search engines in their aggregate review section, that is, unless the Angie’s List business model changed radically. I am sure that the search engines are well aware that Customer Lobby is pro-business. Therefore I don’t foresee the search engines including these reviews into their aggregate review section.

One of my first experiences with reputation management involved Angie’s list. Hearts Pest Management, being a small to mid-size pest control company, simply didn’t get as much public exposure and feedback as some of the competition. I think we were also a bit late in recognizing what Angie’s List could do. In order to leapfrog the competition, we paid for a premium spot at the head of the list. During the contract signing, the salesperson stated that the policy of Angie’s List might change in the future, allowing them to accept reviews for work that was several years old. I put in a stipulation that I agreed only to the current terms of having reviews that were no more than one and one-half years prior. We began to log a few calls from Angie’s List customers. I noticed that there was some business to be made, but at a sacrifice. I noticed that Angie’s List customers had a sense of the upper hand. They could resort to the line of: “Give me what I want or you’re going to get a bad review.” Although not always true, I found the customers were somewhat self-selecting. They were people who felt they had been so misled by contractors that they’d pay a price to get the inside word on contractors and an advantageous position in dealings. There came a point when I felt I was walking on glass with these customers. Nevertheless, we maintained an A+ rating for 3 years, gold stars and all.

But then there came a point when I felt I had to draw a line in the sand. A review came in, a straight F rating. It was from a woman I had personally serviced 8 years prior during my first year in business, a time when I was, honest to God, working 100 hours per week. The customer stated that the company was unfair for insisting that she pay up for $500 worth of rodent work when she was unemployed. (The money eventually came in after 6 months of follow-up).

When I spoke to customer service at Angie’s List I discovered how terrible their customer service was! They discounted that any harm had been done to my A rating. They did not care at all that the review was 8 years old. “What do you care? It won’t make a difference?” But actually it made a great deal of difference to me, as a hard working and honest businessman who needed to justify this 8 year old F rating. The review and the grade would never go away. Having felt that this just crossed the line, I terminated my premium paid membership. While Hearts Pest Management still carries an A rating at Angie’s List, I am pleased that I am not supporting this service that is very skewed toward the customer. While I am 100% for the customer, in this blog you know me as someone who believes in win-win relationships. Angie’s List business could not be counted on as a win-win situation. Angie’s List failed to understand that although much, but not all of their revenue is from the customer side of the equation, they still need businesses who believe that doing business sourced from Angie’s List is a good idea.

I must say that although the line staff in customer service were very non-caring, I was very surprised when several months later a check arrived at my business with a refund for one full year of premium advertising with Angie’s List. Of course, I had told them that I too knew how to use the internet to create negative publicity.

Yelp is another entity that now is taking up the customer mantel. While Yelp is a solid company, the rules of the game they play can change overnight, not unlike the search engines. I have discovered that many legitimate reviews disappear. Also, it is likely the most critical customers who are the most frequent reviewers. Yes, there are those that compliment strongly, but as human nature would have it, those most passionate are often negative. As Yelp works now, reviews are often filtered out unless the user has placed several reviews.

Customer Lobby is an example of a company that pulls from the business community for customers. This company will contact customers of your choosing and filter out the ones that are less positive for your review and intervention, leaving only the best reviews on-line. That’s great for the business, but less than honest. One negative is that the reviews are on Customer Lobby’s website and any link to your website goes away when the payments stop. Additionally, while those great reviews may temporarily get a great ranking on the search engines, that ranking is not for your company but for your review on the Customer Lobby website. This means that the entry competes with any high ranking your own website has. While some argue that the more visible mentions of your company on the search engines the better, I do not think it is a good thing to be sending viewers to a website that contains both your reviews and the reviews of other companies if you are able to attract attention directly to your own website. Where I believe they are most valuable is in discovering problems in your customer base before a complaint is elevated. In that regard it is a very proactive investment.

Especially when the search engines and review sites are talking about your company, there is every reason to promote your pest control company on your own site with testimonials. At Hearts Pest Management we have generated numerous wriitten reviews over the years for our website, as we move forward with video testimonials like this small segment from a Hearts Pest Management customer.

The field of web-based reputation management is an emerging field. I don’t have all of the answers. I can only share my working knowledge and hope some of you may provide your input as well. As with all the major digital marketing media, the field is constantly in flux.

(What’s a blog without comments? I encourage you to leave your comments and to use those social media buttons).

5 Responses to The Twilight Zone of Reputation Management

  1. R says:

    I need an HVAC guy to look at my air conditioner sometime soon, and I’ll (and have already) spend many hours of time researching companies to find the one I think will do the best job for a fair price. Yet, if I get a trusted friend to refer somebody I’ll always call them first. The sneaker network might be slow, but it the most reliable.

  2. Ted Paff says:

    Great blog post! Reviews and reputation management can significantly impact new and recurring business.

    About Customer Lobby:
    – Here are some examples (here, here and here)of Customer Lobby reviews of indexing into Google Maps. These are examples of pest control companies but Customer Lobby works with company’s in over 200 industries.
    – All reviews from actual customers are posted.
    – The reviews must be written about service performed within the prior 12 months.
    – Unlike other reviews companies, on Customer Lobby other companies (i.e. your competitors) are not displayed or linked to.

    Thanks again for the great post,
    Ted Paff
    Customer Lobby

  3. Gerry says:

    Ted, thank you very much for posting your comments on the Hearts Consulting Group blog. The web is all about collective information building and synthesys. I hope others in the reputation management field will do as you have done here to clarify and inform. Especially appreciated are the live examples of customer lobby customers shown on Google place pages. As a businessman, looking to find a company that believes in fair play, I certainly value the policy of your company to restrict reviews to the prior 12 months. While some bad memories can last a long time, the specifics fade with time and the facts can be distorted. To be fair, reviews need to be timely. In that way, the reviews can express both the emotions and the details with accuracy, at least from the customers perspective. Then the company can do the same, providing relavent facts and emotions (yes, companies do have emotions), from a current business perspective.

    Kudos to you and Customer Lobby for not only using your reputation management skills to find and respond to my blog, but moreso for calling me directly to discuss Customer Lobby and the reputation management field more fully. As a soon-to-be customer, I like your style.



  4. Mel says:

    Hi Gerry, It’s a great article. I read an article last month about the Ceo of Yelp was a guest speaker at the Search Marketing Exposition. He stated the reasoning for the limiting reviews to active reviewers. .There have been companies outsourcing for paid reviews and companies offering discounts to customers for good reviews. It is unfortunate legitimate reviews are removed with the changes they’ve made but it can also help businesses. I think the false reviews slamming a company by business competitors will decrease.

    Its just like search engine algorithms periodically changing to level the playing field against shady practices. The algorithm giving weight to reviews should evolve to filter out those who exploit the system. There is no alternative to providing a superior service to obtain word of mouth refferals online or offline.

  5. Gerry says:

    Hi Mel,

    It’s great to see you back here! Hope all is well in the Pacific NW if I remember correctly.

    So I recently realized that Yelp has been cast out by Google. I believe they had a deal pending that didn’t go through and now Google is giving Yelp the shaft. All Yelp reviews I previously saw about my pest control company have disappeared!… for better or worse, I don’t know.

    This is all one big mind game. All reviews are simply annecdotal. They may represent the the two ends of the spectrum, but they absolutely do not represent the silent majority of clientele for any company.

    I don’t understand Yelp at all. It is a know fact that negative reviews are by far more likely to review than positive reviewers. Therefore, the only option for any company is to encourage positive reviews. How do you encourage positive reviews? Perhaps in Mississippi (and this is not a knock against anyone in Mississippi) people have time to write positive reviews, but generally, it isn’t happening without strong encouragement. That means the reviews will come from friends who use your service or those who stand to gain something, if only for using up their valuable time. … and frankly, it is a sign of a good company to offer something in return, something simple, to recognize their contribution.

    What’s it going to be? In-sourced or outsourced? Discounts? Prizes? Perhaps there is a good alternative here for someone who truly loves your service but is temporarily unemployed in this economic mess? Who isn’t losing good customers due to the recession? Most every positive review from most every company is a highly encouraged review.

    There will always be the negative reviewers. Some are valid and those reviews should be respected, but they do not by themselves paint a true picture by any stretch of the imagination.

    Perhaps the search engines need to think again about how to judge company reputation.

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