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Nowadays, information travels through dozens of different channels (if not more), at a speed that is practically incomprehensible. Mix in emotions, experiences, and perhaps a little drama, and the reach of that information increases exponentially. It’s the telephone game on steroids, especially when a company’s reputation is on the line.
The importance of reputation, especially in business, isn't at question here. Reputation can make or break a business, particularly in the automotive industry--an industry which suffers from an air of distrust that we just can’t seem to shake. What is at question, however, is the way in which reputation is communicated and managed, both at the consumer and corporate end.
Making It Personal
Allow me to explain with a personal story. I own a 2005 Chevy Cobalt with approximately 131,000 miles. It is paid off, hasn’t given me very much trouble over the years and has traveled all over the country with me. Over the summer, I had the front bearings replaced at a local shop. The employees were kind, the location was convenient and the cost was more than reasonable. Last week, I noticed that there was something once again wrong with my car and so I brought it back in. I left later that day with a laundry list of problems that needed to be fixed [according to the mechanic] sometime within the next month and the quote totaled to around $2,000. Ouch.
What did I do next? I reached out to my network on Facebook asking for opinions and advice. That post has 40 comments to date from 18 different people and led to several phone calls and text messages. The responses took on 3 main forms:
Besides receiving such an awesome response to my cry for help, I was equally amazed by the number of people who asked if I had checked out the online reviews for this shop. Is that the end-all-be-all in the path to making a purchasing decision? What other factors are taken into consideration? Is it really all that strange for one to make a decision to do business with a company without reading said reviews?
Needless to say, the answer was no. I had not, and I still have not, read any reviews for that shop. In fact, very rarely do I reference reviews before making purchase decisions.
Right Back Where You Started
As much as I see the value in online reviews from a business and consumer standpoint, I’ve also spent years watching businesses sweat, stress, and obsess over online reviews. Likewise, I’ve watched friends/family/colleagues spend enormous amounts of time writing reviews on sites like Yelp, Google+ Local, etc.
Review sites are filled with fantastical stories of customers who have had great experiences and customers who have had terrible experiences; very rarely do you find a neutral or mediocre review. Should that lead us to believe that companies don’t ever provide mediocre services? Absolutely not, that’s unrealistic and it leaves us right back where we started.
I’m particularly fond of how Mitch Joel explained this phenomenon on his blog:
“How often have you looked for a hotel on TripAdvisor only to realize that there are many who loved the hotel and an equal amount of people who hated it. What to do? In the end, the aggregated result leaves you flat in the middle. You're left with what you always had: your own instincts to sort the wheat from the chaff and hope for the best.”
Choosing Between Friends or Strangers
Ultimately, when making a business/purchase decision, the goal is simply a positive outcome. It’s not to spend hours researching the customer service history of a company or the satisfaction track record of a product. So, instead of wasting my time reading reviews online that wouldn’t actually help accomplish the goal, I sought out opinions of people that I trust. As a result, I’ve made a decision that I’m happy with. I also now appreciate my network of friends and colleagues more than ever. Would I have come to this result by consulting online reviews? No.
The Consumer Perspective
Personally, the opinions of 18 people that I know and trust are so much more valuable than 100 strangers that left reviews of a company fueled by an experience that triggered either a positive or negative emotional response. However, by no means am I suggesting that reading or writing reviews is a waste of time. Instead, I challenge consumers to look beyond the easy answers that can be found online, to think about why others are taking the time to write a review and to make sure that each review is taken with a grain of salt. For those who tend to write reviews, I suggest that you question whether posting your feelings online for strangers is really a valuable use of your time. Is there a better way for you to communicate your experience, to people you actually care about? People who actually value your input.
The Corporate Perspective
Regardless of whether consumers rely on online reviews to make decisions, businesses still have to monitor and manage those reviews. And while doing so might seem like an intimidating job, the key to managing online reviews for your business is actually quite simple: don’t stress. In order to do this, you must stop looking at reviews in a vacuum, and instead remember that they actually fall under the overlapping umbrellas of reputation management and customer service. You should have a larger corporate strategy for both of these things; let those strategies guide you.
By focusing on the big picture, you will be reminded that online reviews represent only one of many channels that communicate your reputation. It’s crucial to have eyes on all channels, not just the ones that are most visible, and to keep a lookout for emerging channels. Try asking yourself the following questions - I’d love to see the answers.