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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
"Very easy. Bea Luseni very efficient & knowledgeable."This review was posted by Alan Duffy on the 31st of March 2017
Super helpful and easy to work with
"Recommend this company in a heartbeat - Nicole Borneuf was super easy to talk to, was not pushy in the slightest, very helpful and replied with all my questions very professionally and did all she could to help. I had to deal with a few companies to sort my business energy out, all but Nicole were too pushy for my liking and I refused to follow through with them. Thank Nicole - you are a credit to your company, thank you for making the stressful energy change so easy."This review was posted by Mia Drew on the 29th of March 2017
An Extremely Competent Company
"Switch my business has not only helped my SME secure a good energy deal for the second year running but Jessica swiftly found a alternative supplier for me when I was let down on the day of switching by the new contractual provider I had chosen some 4 months previously. Being suddenly out of contract and without provider is everyone's energy nightmare. Greatest thanks."This review was posted by S McMillan on the 29th of March 2017
Helpful, friendly and we saved lots of money!
"Jessica Purnell was helpful and friendly, she made the whole process easy and simple AND we saved lots of money thanks Jess"This review was posted by Melanie Baker on the 23rd of March 2017
Quick & Easy
"Kabibi was very helpful and the whole process was very efficient. The one small reservation I had was that I was phoned up by Kabibi almost immediately having received my online quote - which wasn't enough time for me to finish reading the quotes! Fortunately she was able to assist me in a greater savings on both Gas & Electricity, and so as long as the switchover is seamless I will remain very happy with the service."This review was posted by Amanda Brown on the 21st of March 2017