One of my consulting clients sent me an interesting puzzle over the weekend. It seems that their financial management solution has some customers who are thrilled with its success, while others are less than thrilled, to the point where these disgruntled customers are posting negative reviews on a “consumer reviews” site. How should the company deal with it?
Warning: I’m going to be a bit cagy in this article because I don’t want to violate any confidence or confidentiality herein. So I won’t point to specific sites, just talk about generalities.
Let me present the sequence of email that went back and forth – so far – and then I’ll talk about my ideas for how to manage this problem and try to minimize the apparently significant, measurable ill effects of the negative reviews on the Internet.
First off, here’s the message my client sent me:
My CEO has approached me with a little PR dilemma that the company is facing in the blogosphere. There are some blog sites at web site addresses masked that have some pretty negative stuff about our company. They want me to research a good PR company that will proactively respond to these complaints and/or push positive remarks about the company from other blog sites above the negative search results.
Rather than just start calling these companies, I thought I’d ask what you’d suggest. Wouldn’t it be better to just hire a blogger who could do this? I’m thinking a PR agency may not know the best way to approach the blog aspect, although maybe they’d do well at handling the complaints. The company has lost a good number of sales because of these. Any
What struck me most forcibly about this query was that the question of are the complaints valid? was never addressed, so that was the gist of my response to the client:
An interesting question. Here are my questions back to you: are the postings on the two sites true? Are they legally actionable? How do you know that they’re affecting your sales?
Do you agree that these are the logical questions before any sort of strategy can be crafted? I mean, after all, if the negative postings are completely false or from, say, a competitor, the response should be different than if they’re true and disgruntled customers are just a natural outgrowth of the business segment.
Here’s how the client responded:
I don’t think that they are entirely true, but not entirely false. Most of the time, the people are frustrated because the program didn’t work out for them. There is a good success rate, though, for those who follow the steps we outline. All businesses have disgruntled customers, however, the investment here is quite large so the pain is
much greater than something else. I don’t know if they are legally actionable. Is it possible that if we find an element of untruth in the postings that we can prove, that we’d be able to pursue something legally?
Its easy to know its affecting sales because we have a sales staff who are talking one on one with the customers. We continually get feedback from the sales reps saying that the deal breaker was when they found us listed on one of these review sites.
Now we can start to build up some sort of set of responses. My greatest concern was whether the complaints were true or not, and apparently they are likely true, they’re from unhappy customers who have invested in the firm’s product line and failed to achieve their desired outcome.
And so, finally, here’s my list of suggestions to the client:
A couple of things come to mind:
1. Encourage customers who have had success to go to the sites and post their favorable reviews. You could even pay them a $50 Amazon gift cert “thank you bonus” or similar to incent them.
2. Call up the people who run the review sites and explain that you believe while some people weren’t happy, others have had excellent experiences, and that you’d like to have a chance to balance the reporting on their site. You could offer to sponsor the site for a period or buy ad space. There’s a >0% chance they’d think you were trying to pay them to remove the negative, so you’d want to reaffirm that you ‘believe strongly in freedom of speech’ and similar, but it seems reasonable to me.
3. If there are identifiable data points in the bad reviews on this site, I’d post explicit articles on your site about those situations, then when your salespeople encounter someone who says that the criticism on these other sites is a deal breaker, the sales person could say “Actually, I know what you’re talking about and we did some research – since we want to make right with any unhappy customer we may have – and found out that things weren’t quite as they stated. I’d really like you to read what we have at www.ourdomain.com/thetruestory”
Now, dear reader, you’ve read the interchange and have a sense of the challenge this company is facing in the blogosphere. Instead of criticizing the approach after the fact, how would you help this company figure out how to address the situation before everyone decides they’ve done it wrong?
There are clearly ethical and legal issues here too: while you can sue someone who complains about your company – even if their claims are true – it’s not the kind of thing that gives you a good reputation in your market space. You can also sue the web site that hosts the comments, again, even if they’re true, as Traffic Power has done with various bloggers (as detailed in my article Blogger Sued Over Comments on Weblog), but is that a good strategy?
There’s also a bigger issue here too, one that I believe transcends the blogosphere: how does a company that inevitably has customers who fail put its best foot forward? This surely affects Weight Watchers and your local gym just as much as online companies. What’s their trick and how can it be applied online?