Abe Lincoln once shared an interesting metaphor about reputation. He said that if a person’s character is like a tree, his reputation is like its shade. People value a tree for its shade and a person for his reputation, but just as shade cannot exist without a tree, a good reputation cannot last without character.
For a business, the importance of reputation cannot be overemphasized. Your brand is made of two parts – your message (what you say about yourself) and your reputation (what others say about you). Your message – communicated on business cards, ads and a nice shop sign – tells people that you exist and might get them to try you once. But your reputation is what keeps them coming back.
A strong reputation not only gets you more and better clients without spending thousands, but also shields you from all kinds of problems, from a spiteful ex-customer to trouble with the economy. But reputation has to be earned painstakingly over months and years. It cannot be purchased or embellished. This is especially true today, when anyone can write you a bad review on Yelp for the whole world to read. We are living in times when all it takes to tear down a business built over a lifetime is for one mistake to go viral on the Web. The only reliable strategy to build a reputation is to consistently do excellent work.
Building a rock-solid reputation can be like seeking the Holy Grail, but this list of Do’s and Don’ts could make your Quest a little easier:
First, the Do’s:
Invest in your online real estate
Your real estate on the Web is as significant as your office’s signboard and paintjob in real life. Appearances do matter, and you will constantly be judged on them. People are increasingly relying on web searches to find services. And whether we like it or not, someone who is new to your area will prefer a business with a website to one that’s soliciting solely on Craigslist.
A modern, mobile-friendly site will have higher instant credibility over a site that looks like it was coded in 1996 for Netscape Navigator. That doesn’t mean that you should hire a web design agency and spend thousands that you cannot spare. For starters, a site explaining your service, listing contact details and an inquiry form might be all you need.
If you do not want to invest too much time into managing a business website, services such as WordPress.com, Squarespace, Wix, or Tech Site Builder offer inexpensive domains, low-cost or free services and SEO out of the box. If you can build a simple, clean but informative business website by investing at least one hour of your life, why wouldn’t you?
Wear more pieces of flair
This is another of those things that we wish did not matter in real life, but it does. Having badges, certifications, memberships and Orders of Merit hanging on your walls or decorating your site can do wonders for your reputation. Sometimes, the difference between a hobbyist and a professional is only one of perception. Sure, if you are the only computer services business in your town, it doesn’t make much of a difference either way. But if you are competing with other businesses, it doesn’t hurt to stand out.
Certificates and badges of membership to professional organizations can be relatively inexpensive if you do your research. They also allow you to network with other professionals in your area, who may refer new clients to you. Larger businesses are also more likely to hire you if you are a member of a professional organization.
In an ideal world, your reputation would not be affected by an important-sounding “seal of approval” from some trade guild. But in real life, such embellishments do help. So long as that nice-looking badge on your site or a framed piece of paper on your wall isn’t costing you a spare kidney, it doesn’t hurt to get one. And when you do, make your branding consistent by mentioning it on anything that a customer sees. Display it in your office, put it on your website, your work t-shirt, on bumper stickers, business cards and your next tattoo (maybe skip that).
Share your knowledge freely
When I say, “share your knowledge freely”, I do not mean “share your services for free”. Giving your services for free or at steep discounts is not going to help you grow your business – instead, it will make your customers value you less. What I mean is this: you should value what you know, and value it so much that you want others to benefit from it. You probably got into this business because you love technology. Unfortunately, a lot of people are intimidated by it. Don’t they deserve to feel the same fascination, excitement and sense of possibilities that you do? And if you make technology accessible and interesting to them, won’t they respect and trust you for it?
Since you’re always around technology, you probably do not realize how clueless some people are about computers. Maybe you do not respect your knowledge and skills because so much seems simple and common-sense to you. Imagine something as commonplace as a purchasing decision. Should they buy a laptop, a tablet or gaming PC? What would give better value for money? Windows, Mac or Ubuntu? Should they spend on a DVD writer? Your advice could save them hundreds of dollars, and it would barely take a couple of minutes of your time on the phone. And guess who they’ll turn to when that laptop starts squeaking like a rat on steroids.
Many services are now fully dependent on the “share freely” business model. Food bloggers share recipes for free so that they can eventually write and sell cookbooks. Indie musicians post free videos on Youtube to build a demand for their albums.
Writing for your local newspaper can be a great way of building up your reputation. Newspapers are always trawling for more, better content. If you propose a weekly or bi-weekly tech column to the editors and hint that money is not a major concern, they’ll be happy to offer you a break. This can do all kinds of good things for your business, and for you. It will obviously afford you more exposure as the local tech expert and bring you higher-paying clients. Unlike blogs, newspapers have an audience ready for you. Writing a column will also raise your profile, as people believe that someone who has his own column is an “expert” (even if that’s not entirely accurate).
Other ways to share your knowledge freely simply involve posting on social media, writing for other blogs as well as your own, and podcasting.
What’s more interesting though, is that sharing your knowledge with others will indeed make you more of an expert, because you’ll be doing your research thoroughly before offering advice. But the greatest benefit will be the unexpected opportunities that come your way. You may not think of yourself as someone more than an engineer, but others may perceive you differently. With your own column or blog, you’re already moving from fixing computers to teaching and advising. Who knows what else you can be. An author? A consultant? Your reputation will soar with each new possibility.
While you work to build a strong reputation, you must also avoid doing things that can damage it. Here are some rules of thumb to keep in mind.
Don’t mix business and opinions
Remember when Chik-fil-A took a stand against same-sex marriage? They faced some protests, but the controversy generated massive word-of-mouth and sales increased for a while. Fast-forward three years, and the Supreme Court has legalized same-sex marriage and Chik-fil-A has been left with an egg on its face.
When a person believes, supports or opposes something, his views hardly affect his career, finances and social life in the long term. But a business does not have this luxury. Any moral stand that a business takes becomes part of its history. And no matter how strongly we feel about something, opinions and lifestyles can change in only a few years.
Forty years ago, almost no business worried about environmental pollution. Thirty years ago, smoking in offices and homes was normal. Ten years ago, a business owner could say or do as he pleased in his private life. Times have changed. Today, shooting a lion in Zimbabwe can destroy a dental practice in Minnesota. Personally, I love the Web for forcing people to live more responsibly. I think that business owners need to respect the power of the Web and stay out of matters that do not affect their business or industry in any way.
As a business owner, you should care about your community, your industry and the impact of your actions. But within reason. A business is not a social movement. While owning a business gives you the freedom to work on your own terms, charge your own rates and define your own dress code, it also means self-censoring your freedom of expression, sometimes.
Don’t be a One Hit Wonder
It takes many instances of consistently good service to earn a loyal customer. But it only takes one instance of poor service to lose one. Building a good reputation means giving consistently good service when you’re close to burning out, when the weather is bad, when you have allergies, when you are sick of your routine, when your personal life is in the toilet … but especially when your business is doing so well, you couldn’t care less if you lost a customer or two. A crisis might bring out the best in you, but perhaps a truer test of character is the pains you’re willing to take when business is booming.
It’s also important to always follow up by phone, text or email. A seemingly minor commitment you make might mean a lot to a client. Following up not only reminds you of what you promised, but also assures your clients that they can depend on you. And who doesn’t love having one less problem to worry about? When you have a lot of clients, some delays are inevitable, but keeping in touch with your clients will go a long way in avoiding spiteful phone calls and bad reviews.
Don’t ignore a hit to your reputation
As your business grows, you will inevitably have to deal with unpleasant incidents and customers who can never be pleased. In the past, you could simply have shrugged and moved on. Today, an ex-customer can leave an irate review on Yelp or Facebook for all the world to read. A well-written one-star review can potentially make you lose business for months. The unfortunate reality is that perhaps one out of 10 happy customers will praise your work publicly, but an unhappy customer will be quick to spite you. And sometimes, you make a mistake that a simple apology cannot fix. What are you going to do?
If a bad review is posted online, you might think that the best strategy is to ignore it. “This too shall pass”, you might believe. You might think that it’s smarter to look the other way, rather than fan the flames. Don’t make that mistake! Someone is already fanning the flames. And the only way to put out this fire is by cutting oxygen. In this case, cutting off oxygen means countering the reviewer – without being confrontational. The key here is to demonstrate that you are a professional without actually saying so.
Think of an online interaction as a chance to demonstrate your customer relationship skills. Respond to the review by calmly, politely explaining your side of the story. Ask for a chance to set things right. Although you are trying to mend fences with your ex-customer, your real audience is the readers of that website. So please be sure not to get into a long-winded argument. Even if people can see that you tried, really tried making the reviewer happy, that might be enough to protect your reputation. Demonstrating that you care is more important than having a 100% success rate. And more often than not, you’ll find that many customers who give you a bad review will gladly change their opinion of you when you demonstrate that you listen to them.
Don’t get paid reviews
In the good ol’ days, one way to “MacGyver” a reputation was to ask your dear family and friends to write glowing reviews. And to an extent, there’s nothing wrong in asking friends to write a review after you’ve actually done a job for them. That’s what friends are for, right?
Now you don’t need friends, or even actual customers. Some people prefer to use sites like Fiverr, where freelancers will charge you $5 to write 5 unique, positive reviews for your service. For the price of a modest take-out, a reviewer in Alaska or Nigeria will proclaim how they totally hired you, and you healed their comatose gadget like the magician that you are. You might fool the casual reader with a fake review, but not a smart or well-informed person. And the more popular such services get, the better people and web services will get at sniffing out fake reviews. And if you think that having no reviews is bad, wait till you run into that guy who is “so bad, he actually needs to pay people to say good things about him.”
Many web services already have sophisticated algorithms for spotting fake reviews. For instance, many freelancers do not write reviews for Yelp anymore because they get outed and flagged. It’s easy to be cynical or dismissive of “do the right thing” and “pay your dues” kind of advice, but in some ways, these Biblical slogans are more relevant than ever before.
Three lil’ piggies wanted to build a house. One built a home of straw, and the big bad wolf blew it in and ate the pig. The second built a home of sticks, and the wolf blew it in and ate the pig. The third pig built a strong home of bricks and the wolf could not get to him. Your reputation is like the home you’re building, and the world is the big bad wolf. If you try to build your reputation hastily, or lazily, it will collapse and could potentially ruin you. Reputations have to be built diligently, slowly and with integrity.
This is truer today than it has ever been. It’s interesting that the culture of brutal honesty that the Web is creating is forcing businesses to do the right thing. They have to treat each customer fairly, listen to honest feedback, care about the well-being of their fellow human beings and be responsible toward their community. Some people are threatened and intimidated by the reality of life in the Age of Communication. But perhaps there’s never been a better and easier time to succeed by building an honest reputation. It’s never been easier for customers to choose a business that offers its services with integrity and commitment to strong values. We live in great times. Seize the day!