How To Deal With A Negative Online Presence

Posted by Doug Davidoff

Aug 13, 2015 9:00:00 AM

I had an interesting experience today. I was presenting to a group of CEOs about how to take a structural approach to sales growth. Needless to say, much of my time was spent talking about building effective lead generation and management processes.

The presentation didn’t get very far before I started talking about the Zero Moment of Truth (ZMOT), and how it’s impacted the buying and selling process. After my introduction to the ZMOT, one of the CEOs in attendance raised his had and said, “Doug, that’s all well and good, but what if you don’t want to do that [compete in the ZMOT]? What if you don’t want to fight for online attention?” Here’s where it got interesting; he then asked, “What’s plan B?”

My answer was, “There really is no plan B. Whether you want to accept it or not, your prospects are participating in the ZMOT, and any refusal to acknowledge its existence or impact doesn’t change how prospects learn, engage and buy.”

As I got to know him through the workshop, I learned that he’s dealing with an increasingly common implication of this new world. His company, under previous ownership, clearly had some dissatisfied ex-customers and some took to the Internet to say some insidious things about the company (and to say those things often). The problem he’s facing is that when people are online, they’re currently as likely to see negative characterizations of his firm as anything.

I’ve shared before that a brand is not what it’s owners (or their marketing agency) say it is. It’s what those who come in contact with them say it is. Increasingly, your company brand can be quickly characterized by the results of a Google (or, maybe, a Bing) search. Unfortunately, you have less and less control over those results every day.

I haven’t had a chance to learn the details of his situation and share any insights with this CEO yet. Actually, this is what makes me comfortable sharing this story in this post. The thoughts I share here are less about his situation and more about what a business should be doing when dealing with bad “Google-karma.” I should also disclaim that I am not an expert in PR, and oftentimes situations like these need the deep expertise of a PR professional (what say you, Gini Dietrich?).

After the workshop, I had a chance to peruse the Internet to learn more about what was being said. If I were sitting with this executive now, or with anyone dealing with this problem, here’s what I would recommend.

Assess the reality of the comments

The first step is to separate the facts from the emotions and opinions. Most people don’t start with the intent of trying to destroy a business or a brand. They feel they’ve been wronged and further feel as though they’ve not been heard or supported. As with most complaints, there is usually at least some truth at the base of the complaints.

So my first questions for this executive would be:

  • What aspects of these complaints and characterizations are true?
  • What aspects were true at the time and are no longer true because you’ve acted upon them?
  • What aspects are totally false and what data/facts do you have to support that?

It is especially important that you not get emotional in this process (and, yes, I realize that's hard not to do).  

Engage the dissent

As I was searching to learn what was happening, I was easily able to find the negative takes of his organization. What was distressing to me was that I found nothing – NOTHING – that gave a different take.

If I were one of his prospects, I would have to assume that the complaints were true because if they weren’t, I’d expect to see something to the contrary.

My suggestion to engage the dissent is probably the most controversial of my recommendations. There’s still a school of thought that saying nothing will get you through the storm faster. In many cases I agree with this. However, these comments go back years, so ignoring the issue is clearly not stopping it.

I’m in no way saying you should provide a counterpoint to every bad review someone posts on Yelp, G2, Amazon or the web. However, when the only peer comments are negative, you must provide your story.

Be authentic

Nobody expects you to be perfect. We all make mistakes. Your customers and prospects will forgive those mistakes if you acknowledge them and demonstrate (through actions) your efforts to fix it.

If someone says you don’t provide the support you said you would, and they’re right, then acknowledge that fact and share what you’ve done and what you’re doing to fix the problem. If they say you didn’t provide the support and you did, share how you do provide support and back it up with facts, data and experiences from your customers.

Customers understand that a solution doesn’t work every time. Sometimes people will buy from you and fail to get the intended results. As the saying goes, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.” Be open and honest about why some people don’t get results and what they can do to minimize that from happening.

Embrace peer review

Harvey Mackey, a noted executive and sales advisor, cautioned people to build their wells before everything was dry. In essence, he was advising that you build your network of influence before you need it.

Peer review isn’t going away. First we reviewed products on websites like Amazon. Then Yelp came along and made reviewing restaurants and other establishments commonplace. Now we have sites like G2Crowd that provides peer reviews of enterprise technology systems.

Don’t wait until you have a problem to build your reference network. Open a Yelp page on your business and encourage your fans to review you there. Create forums on your website that allow your customers to comment and share their experience. Sure, not every review or comment will be positive; but that’s okay.

I had a friend who was attacked online by someone who claimed that he had lied about what his company did. The comment was put on a highly-trafficked social media site. Before my friend even knew about the comment going live, there were more than 50 comments talking about what a stand-up guy he was and the impact his business had on them. He never even had to respond to the comment because he already had an advocate network.

Stay focused on your growth playbook

When you’re dealing with problems like these, it’s easy to get myopic and lose site of the bigger picture. Be sure you stay focused on who your best customers are, create content that resonates with them and execute your growth strategy. The power of strong content will overcome the vitriol of trolls every day.

The only reason not to do this

I realize that my advice here is scary. Few people enjoy not being in control. The fact of the matter is that we are no longer in control so we might as well accept it.

As I think about this advice and the dangers of following it, there’s only one scenario that makes engaging the dissent a dangerous action. That’s if the comments are true, you don’t have facts or data to back up your claims and you haven’t done anything to address the issue.

In that case, you don’t want people to know about what’s being said online because if they learn about it, you’ll lose the opportunity. If this is the case, here’s my advice -  FIX THE PROBLEM or get out of business.

The goal should not be to hide this information from your prospects – you can’t no matter how hard you try. We no longer live in a buyer beware world. We’re smack dab in the middle of the seller beware reality.

Acknowledge that your customers and prospects have all the power today. Focus on who you can best serve (who can you be a hero to?) and strive to solve important problems they face better than anyone else.

The fix won’t be fast, and you’ll deal with lots of frustration; but if you stick to it you’ll build the strong core that allows you to grow effortlessly in the long-term.