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The internet and social media means there is far greater scope for both satisfied and unhappy customers to share their experiences. How can UK SMEs adapt?
Cultivating a good reputation has always been an important part of running any business. But where much of this previously came from ‘word of mouth’, if you are a tradesman, retailer, or – in particular – in the hospitality sector, online reviews of your service are almost inevitable.
While you may have many other pressing tasks, it is vital to ensure that you keep the people you do business with happy, and that any online comments or reviews are fair and accurate.
The accuracy (or otherwise) of online ratings was brought into the spotlight recently by a report published by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). The watchdog said it was particularly concerned about businesses or individuals who were writing fake negative reviews about rival companies.
The report highlighted just how widespread this practice is: the British Hospitality Association (BHA), for example, told the CMA that in a survey of more than 800 of its members, every single one had reported a malicious or patently false review in the past two years, or some form of blackmail from customers threatening to post negative reviews.
In theory, review sites should allow businesses to respond and to have negative comments removed if they can be demonstrated to be false. But the BHA said that 62% of its members had found sites to be “not helpful at all” when it came to such matters.
The CMA added that smaller companies were likely to suffer more from negative reviews. A spokesman said: “Bigger businesses are likely to be able to withstand the impact of fake negative reviews rather better because they tend to be reviewed more frequently, with the result that the fake reviews are likely to be outnumbered and quickly lose visibility. They may also have bigger advertising budgets to counter any bad publicity that they do suffer.”
Best-practice among review sites involves giving businesses the right to reply alongside any customer comments, as well as the opportunity to complain about fake reviews and have them removed.
Tripadvisor, for example, has a clear process that allows business owners to report reviews that they think are “fraudulent or otherwise improper”. This involves submitting evidence to the site that can demonstrate a review is not genuine.
But many business organisations, as well as the CMA, are concerned that not enough sites give victims of malicious reviews the opportunity to put matters right.
Kate Nicholls from the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR) said all sites should be forced to implement similar procedures to Tripadvisor’s to ensure company reputations were not harmed unfairly: “Businesses are at risk from misleading reviews and we would like to see that further procedures for detecting and removing unfair or malicious reviews are put in place along with a formal resolution procedure for disputes and complaints.”
Such changes may take time in the currently unregulated world of online reviews. In the meantime, responding personally can be the best strategy.
But do consider the ‘Streisand effect’: this is the phenomenon, named after singer and actress Barbara Streisand, where the act of trying to stifle online criticism only serves to attract more attention and bad publicity.
Bear in mind that arguing, appearing to lose your temper or making insults online can in some cases add to the reputational damage your business has suffered.
On the flip side, a witty, well-thought-out response can occasionally ‘go viral’, driving invaluable brand awareness and potentially international coverage. But this type of response takes time and careful consideration to create. And it depends upon you being completely in the right.
If you suspect that a bad review has some truth, it might be far better to offer an apologetic response, admitting your fault and setting out how you will address the problems raised.
By Chris Torney
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