"Opinion has caused more trouble on this little earth than plagues or earthquakes," Age of Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire famously said.
If you or your clients have received unfavorable online comments or reviews, you know exactly what he meant: Years of reputation-building can be toppled by negative online commentary.
But the reality is you can't run a business without having customers and others providing online ratings or comments. It's an expectation in the Age of Transparency. And, as a marketer, you know that hiding from troubling commentary won't do much good in this century, in a time of freewheeling online opinion.
People love to leave comments and ratings: A simple box of Bic Round Stic pens on Amazon has received nearly 1,900 comments. Chances are that you and your clients have also rated or reviewed a product or service in the past year, or added a comment to someone else's comments. And, even if you haven't, you've surely read what others have said online.
Granted, online reviews are particularly worrisome for professionals who never expected that they would be subject to virtual opinions.
Such professionals include professors who are reviewed on ratemyprofessors.com, which invites university students to assess their professors on helpfulness, clarity, easiness, and an optional assessment of "hotness." Religious leaders, too, have their sermons and services rated on Yelp. And, in the healthcare profession, where I work, physicians now have a multiple of rating sites, such as Vitals and Healthgrades, as well as Yelp, Angie's List, and other sites for consumer services.
How to help your clients or your own business in this age of rampant rating? Here are four tips.
1. Build it yourself
The best defense against a bad rating is to have even better content elsewhere online.
Ratings and comments are just one part of an online reputation, which should also include a mobile- and search-optimized website; content-rich visibility on LinkedIn, Facebook, and other social media sites; and positive stories you've pitched to journalists and bloggers. All of those can add to your reputation and help push bad ratings further down in search listings.
Yes, it's a lot of work, but the rewards can be substantial. A solid online reputation is worth working toward.
2. Respond appropriately
So what if you do get a negative comment? Resist the urge to immediately delete or manipulate the comment. If you can, you should respond. Just remember to be brief, professional, thankful for the feedback, and factual.
If there are many issues to address or, as in the case of medical professionals, you are prohibited from divulging protected information about the situation or commenter, offer an invitation to contact you offline. An offline, direct conversation may be all you need to resolve the issue.
Whatever the case, don't be combative, don't make excuses, and don't tell readers their opinions are invalid.
Review websites are not legally required to intervene when you receive a negative review, but they do want to remove false reviews. Therefore, if the review is grossly unfair (as in... it doesn't actually involve your business) or discriminatory, or if it violates the site's policies, you may be able to have the site remove the comment entirely.
3. Ask for more comments
Yes, you will do better by trying to gain additional comments and ratings than running from them.
If doing so feels intimidating, the good news is that user-generated comments and reviews are in a state of evolution. When the opportunity first arose, most people had something negative to say. It was chance to vent that hadn't been available before. And it is true that people are meaner when protected by the computer screen as opposed to during face-to-face interaction.
But times are changing: More and more people are using these ratings, comments, and reviews to share valuable information.
4. Analyze your data
Look at how you are being rated and what people say. Seek out patterns in the language of the comments. If you are continually being downgraded for customer service, that's a fairly large clue.
Also look at what shines in your positive reviews. If "professional," "friendly," and "recommend" pop up, you're on the right track. Look at the competition's comments and ratings, as well, to determine their strengths and weaknesses.
Then set goals for performance with your colleagues and staff and hold everyone accountable for moving the needle.
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One final word of encouragement: even poor ratings can be turned around. In many cases, business owners have reached out to online reviewers, made changes to the product or service, and as a result found that their ratings improved significantly.
Going back to Voltaire's quote: online opinions can certainly shake a business to its core; the best response is to use them as constructive advice and not let them rattle you permanently.