Crafting a blog damage control strategy

One of my consulting clients sent me an interesting puzzle over the weekend. It seems that their financial management solution has some customers who are thrilled with its success, while others are less than thrilled, to the point where these disgruntled customers are posting negative reviews on a “consumer reviews” site. How should the company deal with it?
Warning: I’m going to be a bit cagy in this article because I don’t want to violate any confidence or confidentiality herein. So I won’t point to specific sites, just talk about generalities.
Let me present the sequence of email that went back and forth – so far – and then I’ll talk about my ideas for how to manage this problem and try to minimize the apparently significant, measurable ill effects of the negative reviews on the Internet.


First off, here’s the message my client sent me:
My CEO has approached me with a little PR dilemma that the company is facing in the blogosphere. There are some blog sites at web site addresses masked that have some pretty negative stuff about our company. They want me to research a good PR company that will proactively respond to these complaints and/or push positive remarks about the company from other blog sites above the negative search results.
Rather than just start calling these companies, I thought I’d ask what you’d suggest. Wouldn’t it be better to just hire a blogger who could do this? I’m thinking a PR agency may not know the best way to approach the blog aspect, although maybe they’d do well at handling the complaints. The company has lost a good number of sales because of these. Any
suggestions?

What struck me most forcibly about this query was that the question of are the complaints valid? was never addressed, so that was the gist of my response to the client:
An interesting question. Here are my questions back to you: are the postings on the two sites true? Are they legally actionable? How do you know that they’re affecting your sales?
Do you agree that these are the logical questions before any sort of strategy can be crafted? I mean, after all, if the negative postings are completely false or from, say, a competitor, the response should be different than if they’re true and disgruntled customers are just a natural outgrowth of the business segment.
Here’s how the client responded:
I don’t think that they are entirely true, but not entirely false. Most of the time, the people are frustrated because the program didn’t work out for them. There is a good success rate, though, for those who follow the steps we outline. All businesses have disgruntled customers, however, the investment here is quite large so the pain is
much greater than something else. I don’t know if they are legally actionable. Is it possible that if we find an element of untruth in the postings that we can prove, that we’d be able to pursue something legally?

Its easy to know its affecting sales because we have a sales staff who are talking one on one with the customers. We continually get feedback from the sales reps saying that the deal breaker was when they found us listed on one of these review sites.
Now we can start to build up some sort of set of responses. My greatest concern was whether the complaints were true or not, and apparently they are likely true, they’re from unhappy customers who have invested in the firm’s product line and failed to achieve their desired outcome.
And so, finally, here’s my list of suggestions to the client:
A couple of things come to mind:
1. Encourage customers who have had success to go to the sites and post their favorable reviews. You could even pay them a $50 Amazon gift cert “thank you bonus” or similar to incent them.
2. Call up the people who run the review sites and explain that you believe while some people weren’t happy, others have had excellent experiences, and that you’d like to have a chance to balance the reporting on their site. You could offer to sponsor the site for a period or buy ad space. There’s a >0% chance they’d think you were trying to pay them to remove the negative, so you’d want to reaffirm that you ‘believe strongly in freedom of speech’ and similar, but it seems reasonable to me.
3. If there are identifiable data points in the bad reviews on this site, I’d post explicit articles on your site about those situations, then when your salespeople encounter someone who says that the criticism on these other sites is a deal breaker, the sales person could say “Actually, I know what you’re talking about and we did some research – since we want to make right with any unhappy customer we may have – and found out that things weren’t quite as they stated. I’d really like you to read what we have at www.ourdomain.com/thetruestory”
Now, dear reader, you’ve read the interchange and have a sense of the challenge this company is facing in the blogosphere. Instead of criticizing the approach after the fact, how would you help this company figure out how to address the situation before everyone decides they’ve done it wrong?
There are clearly ethical and legal issues here too: while you can sue someone who complains about your company – even if their claims are true – it’s not the kind of thing that gives you a good reputation in your market space. You can also sue the web site that hosts the comments, again, even if they’re true, as Traffic Power has done with various bloggers (as detailed in my article Blogger Sued Over Comments on Weblog), but is that a good strategy?
There’s also a bigger issue here too, one that I believe transcends the blogosphere: how does a company that inevitably has customers who fail put its best foot forward? This surely affects Weight Watchers and your local gym just as much as online companies. What’s their trick and how can it be applied online?

14 comments on “Crafting a blog damage control strategy

  1. Dave you do come up with the doosies (sp).
    As you know, you have supplied minimal information. I find your questions posed, were the same my mind posed.
    From a purist standpoint…sounds like the company need to do a better job.
    From a damage control point of view…I agree with your options provided.
    But in truth…sounds like this company not only needs to improve itself…but, that it needs to blog.
    You know, fight fire with fire…or quench it with an honest change.

  2. I think your client has a great opportunity if they want to do the work to make their customer happy. A customer who is disgruntled enough to post negative reviews can become the strongest advocate if your client goes above and beyond to make their solution work. If they can’t, they should give them their money back. Either way it sounds like the first step is not to get defensive, but rather to solve the underlying problem with their product and turn the unhappy customer into a referral machine.

  3. Isn’t the answer to your specific final question that for those types of bsuinesses the failed customers are simply too embarrassed to admit failure and maybe even believe that they themselves are the cause of the failure, and hence much less likely to blab to the world about their unresolved problems?
    Maybe there are some better examples.
    Also, there is the issue of whether the faiures are simply classic “lemons” that snuck past the QA filter, or a sign of truly shoddy work. The former can easily be remedied.
    And also, there is the issue of whether the failures were the result of a product/user mismatch such as occurs freuently when a salesperson is overzealous on the pitch and underzealous on the followthrough.
    Minor query: were the negative comments actually on blogs, or on one of the non-blog web sites that have sprung up specificially as magnets for maintaining a database of negative comments?
    — Jack Krupansky

  4. >>> but, that it needs to blog <<<
    Jeff has a good point (I’m biased of course) but it makes sense. The first positive step would be to communicate in the same manner that the customers chose to communicate. It demonstrates a willingness to listen (with commenting enabled of course).
    The second step – probably makes sense to invite these disgruntled’s to participate in discussions to improve the product while offereing some form of compensation (partial refund, whatever). That (alone) may trigger a few positive bloggosphere posts.
    bf

  5. I was a little dismayed at the comment indicating whether the company could somehow make the postive heard louder than the negative.
    “…push positive remarks about the company from other blog sites above the negative search results.”
    Right away I found myself questioning the ethics of “word of mouth marketing” that seems to be the buzz right now about businesses blogging. I have often preached the fact that companies need to educate more than advocate for better credibility.
    It appears that the companies is afraid of what could happen with these negatiev comments. I am a beleiver in blogs being a good PR tool and certainly this business would do a great deal towards addressing the complaints if they were to specifically post about them and explain from a business standpoint, why the customer was unhappy, and what could be done to remedy the situation. If customers are savvy enough to find negative reviews on the internet, they are certainly savvy enough to find the company blog and join in the discussion if needed. I’ll leave it there or else I have to start charging…
    I’m kidding, but I found myself preaching to the choir. Perhaps a series of posts as this case study progresses?

  6. I actually had to look up the definition of “risk reversal”. The Wikipedia description was of no value since it is oriented towards finance rather than marketing.
    I found a good definition here: http://www.webyodel.com/tips/secretsofsuccessfullads.htm
    My all-time favorite example of “risk reversal”: sign on a garbage truck: “Satisfaction Guaranteed… Or Your Trash Back.”
    I think a “mere” risk reversal may be insufficient. If the customer has invested *time* in the project, are you really going to compensate them for: A) the value of their time, and B) the lost opportunity cost of their time?
    My limited reading suggests that risk reversal is more of a sales *closing* tool, than an assurance that the customer will likely be happy with the actual service.
    — Jack Krupansky

  7. Damage control ideally is done by the corporate person responsible. It’s that simple.
    And get the truth, then proceed from there, the full truth at its very ugliest. The bloggers will keep digging up details, so the Damage Control person has to know 10 times more than any dirt digger could ever come up with.
    Even if you hire a PR agency or a blogger, you still have to get that Corporate Person who is Responsible, meaning who created the “problem”, to explain his side of it candidly.
    Then, the Corporate Person, or the blogger, or the PR person has to speak for him, or polish his written statements, guide him as you as a team craft the response.
    For damage control in the blogosphere, you MUST use a pro blogger: aggressive, intelligent, dipolmatic, known for confrontation, famous for winning blogocombat debates, and overwhelmingly charming, without being crafty in a negative, sleazy sense, but with street smarts.
    Now you got me describing a Job Position, for a new kind of blogger, a Damage Control Blogocombat Warrior, is what you want here.
    Some sharp-tongued blogger who can pulverize the opposing view, without offending good taste or corporate dignity. Some one the other blog readers will cheer as “funny, self-assured, and fair”, someone people will like.
    If it’s a suit spouting corporate fluff apologies, or dubious pleas of innocense, it will turn off the blogosphere.
    You know what I mean Dave. Someone like you, who’s been around the garrulous gaming forums and chat rooms where they fight like insane psychopaths, just to prove some esoteric point of a game or computer part number. But more finesse and high ethics.
    “Come on guys, you know XYZ Company has provided great product for 35 years, with great service support. Now something slipped through the cracks, got past our inspectors, and we shipped some shoddy doohickeys. We’re very embarrassed and hurt to think that some loyal customers will leave and never return. All for one dumb mistake. Sorry. To try to make up for it, we are racing to do whatever it takes to win you back and somehow compensate for the trouble we caused you…[etc.]”
    Figure out what type, psychological style of blogs they are with the neg. commentary on the client. Then think of how best to talk to this crowd. Tough and brief? Or sweet and lengthy? Those are the two major divisions of styles.
    Don’t want to say a lot, but not too brief either.
    But you or whoever writes the damage control posts *must* be able to talk exactly like the typical anti-company commenter and the other readers and authors of these blogs. This is crucial.
    Otherwise, the whole effort will backfire, and cause even more negative blogospheric commentary.

  8. First, I am not good with math so I almost missed your spam verifier 😉
    Now, to add my opin, I would suggest some reps from that company might try posting responses on the “consumer reviews” site. Most of them welcome responses like that.
    The guy from Technorati seems to do this really, really well. Anytime I see Technorati mentioned negatively online, I almost always see a response from him addressing the situation.
    I’d tell the company responder to never appear ruffled and bend over backwards to please the customer’s issue.

  9. A couple of key phrases here jump out: “…their financial management solution;” and “Most of the time, the people are frustrated because the program didn’t work out for them.”
    These suggest that the firm sells some investment or speculative money-making scheme. Like all schemes, sooner or later it inevitably goes south. The disgruntled customers, I’m guessing, annied up and lost. They probably feel misled by the salesperson as well.
    I can think of no other way to handle that situation than to be truthful from the beginning. It’s a harder sell, but a longer term business model. Even then, losers will not be happy, but will have a tendency to say, “I took my chances and it didn’t work out,” rather than “I got screwed.”
    Harry Chittenden

  10. Jack – a RR aint “mere.” It’s massively powerful. Sales closure is only the tip of the iceberg of the marketable implications for a company using it. For ex: using RR will push the company to narrowly target it’s market eliminating potential problems from dolts, err – I mean less informed prospects, which helps prevent a PR problem from occuring. Using a RR raises the quality and confidence of the entire company, by necessity. It’s a wellspring.
    Besides, RR itself is great PR.
    ( I only comment on Dave’s blog to practice my math)

  11. One word…
    Bikers
    Imagine if someone said something bad about harley-davidson motorcycles. There would be a horde of people that would respond and defend the harley-davidson name. Make your product/service so remarkable that your customers will fight your battles for you and become evagelist/warriors for your brand. Easier said than done but that is what I would do in this situation.

  12. Well you are all somewhat versed in the reality zone I see. By the way PR is important, but only as a tool. You can lie to the people some of the time but not all the people all the time. PR firms say and do what is expedient for their clients and the word “ethical” rarely crosses their lips. If that�s the field some of you are in, then I apologize if I hurt your ego, but it�s true. I have worked with more than my share of PR firms over the years, big and small, and they have always placed the welfare of their client above all other ethical responsibilities to the customer and society. It�s the old school way. So welcome to the new school.
    The unfortunate implication here is, don�t use them unless it is of the last resort. If it is to promote in an otherwise non-volatile environment please use them. Using a PR firm to solve this issue providing the x company has true repentance as a course could work, but most likely they would be smelled out and that would again flush them back down the drain. For small businesses there are much easier ways to deal with this.
    Customers/consumers are smart and what use to blow by them doesn’t any more. In fact that is a real problem for today’s PR and Branding firms. They are really starting to loose their grip on important customer issues and their effectiveness is slipping.
    To look at what might be done someone might just want to reference Dell and how they handled their blogging nightmare. Since your X firm is an IT company I’m sure it comes with its truck load of business arrogance, which means this is a customer experience issue and their customer experience management sucks. Traditional IT firms are product orientated and are reactive to providing customer generated problems. Their tact is far from using solution based problem solving unless it�s in the form of a �Most Asked Questions� spot on their web site.
    I would suggest they get their act together and employ a customer experience architect or customer experience management consultant. If they take the consulting seriously they maybe be able to recover the lost sheep and an online apology. Now that would be interesting.
    Another avenue that could be used would to be to use blogs to generate both negative and positive feedback from clients where they can sound off in a controlled environment. This works provided you really listen and offer real solutions. There is a good blog on this at http://cdccustomerservice.blogspot.com for those who would care.
    The point here is that if a customer or group of customers is ticked off enough to blog it�s the companies fault regardless of the reason. If it isn�t then they need to assume that it is and they need to address it on the customer�s terms. If necessary the company should provide a complete refund, with a face to face meeting and if necessary a public apology. Swallowing ones pride always works in favor of the company when the public is involved. The solution should be fast and direct and no squabbles, especially when there is apparently so much at stake. Customers may not always be right, but when ill treated and ignored the price is always greater than the cost of the right solution would have been in the beginning.
    The really sad thing here is that this was escalating long before you were asked for an opinion and that was only because they ran out of running room to run away in.
    Have a good New Year

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