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Online reputation: Absorb, redirect the slings, arrows

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In this day of online review sites such as Glassdoor, Trip Advisor and Yelp, the internet has become one big forum for people to publicly complain about and, if you’re lucky, to compliment businesses.

What should a company do? Ignore the comments? Make changes? Find out who made the comments?

The Consumer Review Freedom Act, which became law in December, affirms people’s right to post truthful negative reviews about a product or service provider, even if they signed an agreement that bans them from doing so in so-called gag orders.

While some companies may fear one-star reviews, they don’t have to be a death knell and instead may offer constructive criticism that, if followed, can help a company to change, experts say.

Sybil Stershic, president of Quality Service Marketing, said companies that have a good culture don’t have to worry about the occasional negative review on sites such as Glassdoor, where current and former employees anonymously provide information on everything from the culture of a company to salaries and benefits.

“Sometimes it doesn’t make sense if you respond defensively. It doesn’t come off well,” Stershic said.

But companies shouldn’t run away from complaints, she said.

“In customer service training, we talk about running to customer complaints, not away from them. Complaining customers give you the opportunity to save your business,” Stershic said.

“The worst situation is when a complaint doesn’t make it to top management because some managers are trying to protect the executive team and don’t want them to know what’s happening or thinking they’re doing a bad job.”

Online reviews have a measurable impact on business, said Denise Maiatico, who as vice president of Meyer Jabara Hotels Lehigh Valley, spends a lot of time reading and responding to reviews of its three hotels: Holiday Inn Conference Center in Fogelsville, Hyatt Place in Bethlehem and Courtyard by Marriott in Bethlehem Township

Maiatico said she is required to respond within 24 hours after a hotel guest leaves a review on Trip Advisor.

“We do know a large percentage of people will look at your review prior to booking. If your ranking is not favorable, you can translate that to lost business,” she said.

“I think first you have to accept that people use the format in all kinds of ways,” Maiatico said. “Some people are quite generous in their praise and other people can be rather unkind, and it’s very hard not to take it personally,” she said.

“The first thing you have to do is take it as valuable feedback, and that it is that person’s perception of their experience. I try to respond professionally without judgment.”

Maiatico said she if the comments are too out of line, she asks the person who posted them to contact her offline.

“Actually, quite a few will if they are upset about something,” she said. “A lot of them are pleased someone cares.”

Maiatico said sometimes the person complaining will post a positive comment after having the discussion. This kind of response is borne out in research that shows that customers who have a complaint resolved to their satisfaction tend to be more loyal than some customers who never had a problem to begin with.

“Customers expect understanding,” Stershic said. “They expect an apology and the problem to be fixed. It’s not asking a lot.”

Kim Lilly, executive vice president of Discover Lehigh Valley, said companies should respond to complaints.

“Don’t be silent. I think there’s more harm if you’re not responding and taking action to what people have said,” Lilly said.

Maiatico said her company has a responsibility to reply professionally and with empathy and to see if there’s anything valuable to learn.

“I try to remind myself other guests [are] looking for information and they want to validate their decision by reading reviews,” she said. “I hope they read the entire scope of reviews. The majority of reviews are positive. Not every person is going to be happy every single day.”

Conversely, Wendy’s fast-food restaurant has taken a different strategy to customers’ negative comments on Twitter. It went for humor and a little snark – and gained a following as a result.

“We like our tweets the same way we like to make hamburgers: better than anyone expects from a fast-food joint,” according to the company’s Twitter profile.

Some examples:

“My friends like Wendy’s, but I don’t. What do I tell them?”

“Apologize for being wrong.”

Another read: “Going to In and Out, what should I get?”

“Out.”

Responding to online reviews can be a full-time job in itself.

“This is something that’s different from 10 years ago from the way we use our time and resources to respond to these online reviews,” Maiatico said.

Kevin Bonser, general manager of Bayou restaurant in Bethlehem, said while he responds to some of the customers’ comments on Yelp, the restaurant hired The Social Station, a marketing company in Allentown that specializes in the hospitality business, to help it manage posts on a variety of sites.

Bonser said The Social Station monitors review sites and sends suggested responses to him for final approval.

What if the negative review or complaint is false?

Maiatico said sometimes guests get their hotels confused.

One hotel guest left a review that disparaged the staff for having lunch outside in the hotel’s picnic area.

“We don’t have one,” Maiatico said.

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