Regardless of how smoothly your business may operate, no one is completely immune to criticism and controversy. With BP’s disastrous oil spill continuing to dominate the headlines almost three months after it took place, it’s becoming alarmingly clear that even the world’s most powerful and formerly respected brands can take a hit online.
But what if you’re not a major brand – just a small online service provider? While failed projects and disastrous clients are unlikely to spread the word as far, they’re just as likely to cause a great deal of damage to your business.
From minor fall outs to projects that didn’t quite go as planned, there are hundreds of reasons for formerly solid client relationships to turn sour.
We’ve prepared this guide to help you respond to such situations. With Google’s dynamic search results pushing “scam” terms to the top of the ranks and speculation-friendly social media outlets giving almost any disgruntled client an outlet, monitoring your online buzz is more important than ever.
The five strategies below can help you keep your name under control, and keep your clients from turning against you.
1. Offer alternatives, new solutions, and even a discount
Managing problematic clients is an art that requires practice. It’s also something that requires a reasonable understanding of trade-offs and sunk costs. If a project has gone poorly and ended in what could become public criticism, you’re faced with two possible choices as a service provider.
The first is to leave it be, pushing your client towards other providers and increasing the chances that you’ll end up with a very public negative testimonial. The second option is to offer a solution to clients in private, extending your service and possibly missing out on such a lucrative project payment.
It’s up to you to decide between the two, but we think it’s worth preserving your name in exchange for a slight hit on your company’s bottom line.
If you’re forced into a position where a dispute could result in negative feedback and a search-friendly public posting, offer a discount on the project or eliminate costs altogether. It will hurt in the short-term and you’ll likely lose any future business, but it’s certainly more welcome than a smear post or high-ranked “scam” forum topic.
2. Have your own public outlet prepared
Don’t have a blog? Start one. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to challenge most companies on their promises, not due to a devaluing of opinions but because of the huge increase in company blogs over the last few years.
Businesses that were once uninterested in blogging and unresponsive to public criticism have taken a different stand, posting weekly to keep a public outlet open.
That one blog can be the difference between a very public fallout and a reasoned response to criticism. With the anonymous nature of the internet and the occasionally shady tactics of many online workers, it’s inevitable that you will one day attract public criticism, particularly if you operate a large business or work with hundreds of different clients.
Prevent that criticism from being the only post on you or your company by building your own public outlet. All it takes is a single blog post weekly – something that takes less than ten minutes and has its own set of promotional benefits.
Control your own outlet and you’ll be prepared for criticism and public disputes, both in the blogosphere and in the search results.
3. Respond to blog posts, “rip-off” reports, and forum bashing carefully
Not every critical blog post deserves a response. Major companies and in-demand online presences often selectively ignore unfair criticism of themselves, instead choosing to focus on their goals and respond to complaints that are justified.
It’s a situation that’s difficult to navigate – when trolls post unfair and inaccurate opinions on your business, many people can take them at face value.
But responding to trollish, untrue comments can sometimes make a bad situation worse. When the complaint is based on nothing but hearsay and anger, a reasoned response can often just ignite fires and push more people to post unfair criticism.
The United States Air Force has a ‘counter-blog’ chart which we’re big fans of – it demonstrates how to respond to the right criticism, and why you should ignore criticism that’s not grounded in reality.
4. Fire your problem clients
Some clients aren’t going to love your service, no matter how great it may be. They’re a type that’s present in every form of business, complaining that extra features aren’t the norm and continually bartering for a discount.
It’s tempting to cater to problem clients and offer discounts to cut down could-be controversy, but doing so leaves you in an annoying and financially difficult position.
Marketing expert and ultra-blogger Seth Godin made the same point in a blog post, stating that you can “put up with the whiners, write off everyone, or, deliberately exclude the ungrateful curs.” We agree with him – it’s best to tailor your business to the clients that bring you more than just long-term projects and income, and eliminate those that could lead to issues.
So take a more forward stance to could-be problem clients, and work them out of your portfolio before they grow to be an annoyance. Some service providers and consultants recommend using your prices to drive away problematic clients, but we think it’s best to just close the door entirely.
Eliminate problem clients before they produce crises and you’ll have more time to focus on those that your business meshes with.
5. Don’t astroturf: make it clear who you are and why you’re defending yourself
The only thing more damaging to your business than an anonymous complaint is an anonymous complaint with a very suspicious ultra-positive response.
With most online complaint boards open to almost anyone, users have grown conditioned to think that anyone singing a company’s praises must be a paid shill.
Don’t fight it – there’s no way to overcome online conditioning and the way people respond to controversy. Instead, be completely open about your affiliation or ownership with the business in question, and explain exactly why you’re responding to any public criticism.
Users aren’t against service providers and businesses from the get-to, they just like their information free of bias and false impartiality.
Responding is one thing – actively monitoring is another. We’ve picked out three strategies that can help you keep your online reputation clean and criticism-free. Think of public responses and visible explanations as a last case scenario, and use these tools and tactics to ensure that you’re never put in a position where it’s a necessity. Here are 3 ways to keep your company’s online image dispute-free:
Use Google Alerts to keep track of your trading name
Google Alerts should be one of the most frequently used tools in any freelancer’s arsenal. Both an amazing marketing tool and an incredibly effective service for reputation management, it’s one of the most immediately accessible tools out there for searching the internet for your name (or your business name) and monitoring the conversation. If you’re in high demand, set a daily reminder and check over the results once every evening. Small businesses and freelancers can get by with once-weekly alerts, which should be configured to email information on their competition, client reviews and public forum posts, and any potential clients with an interest in their services.
Reach out to clients in private if you feel things could turn sour
Never make things public if your name is at stake. Every designer has run into at least one dispute with a client, sometimes over the most minor and inconsequential of details. Even if you feel as if you’re being unfairly targeted or treated poorly, don’t take the matter public unless you’re forced to. Reach out to troubled clients and offer them a solution via email, phone, or an instant messenger. As tempting as it may be to name and shame a problematic client, it reflects poorly on your business to release details of a client’s requests to the public. Aim for private solutions, and let disputes become public only once you’ve exhausted any private options for reconciliation.
Control your search results using social media outlets
Every online business should aim to control their first-page search results. Not the results for their industry, but the results for their trading name, or for freelancers their full name. It’s an exercise that takes surprisingly little effort (unless you’re called John Smith) and is immensely rewarding when it comes to reputation management and handling online disputes. Start with the top spot – one that should be inhabited by your own website – and work your way downwards with social media outlets and other small websites. Controlling your name has obvious benefits when it comes to your online reputation, and it’s also an indispensable method for helping potential clients find your business when referred to you by a trading name.
Written exclusively for WDD by Mathew Carpenter. He is an 18-year-old business owner and entrepreneur from Sydney, Australia. Mathew is currently working on Sofa Moolah, a website that teaches you how to make money online. Follow Mathew on Twitter: @matcarpenter. Follow Sofa Moolah on Twitter: @sofamoolah.
How do you deal with nightmare clients? How ‘far’ do you have to go? Share your view below…