Early in my training career, a student came to me after a three-day training class and exclaimed, “I’m going home and quitting my job.”  My first thought was, Wow, what have I done? Her boss invested in her training, paid her airfare, room and board and instead of returning with improved selling skills and flooring product knowledge, she returns home and tenders her resignation. That certainly will build the reputation of Sam Allman as a flooring trainer.

And he’ll probably want his money back.

However, she continued, “My boss sent me here because business is not good. He thought that I needed to be better trained. I now realize that the problem is not my selling skills. The problem is my boss’s approach to handling problems. My boss ignores customers’ complaints, hoping they will go away. I believe my company has developed a reputation for delivering mediocre or bad service. We are in a small town and the word has spread. I’d better go home and find another job because sooner or later I will have to anyway!  My boss is clueless on what the customers are saying about our company!”

In the pre-Internet days, sad as it sounds, we really didn’t have to worry about delivering stellar service or satisfying all our unhappy customers because word was slow to spread. In the early 1990s I remember how frustrated I got at the poor service I received at a car dealership. I wanted to stand on my rooftop and shout to the whole world how poorly I was treated. But I soon forgot about it and let it go because I had no venue to blabber my frustrations to my community.

As someone said, “The Internet changes everything.”  The Internet offers a forum for the customer to voice and broadcast to not just your own community but to the world how poorly she has been treated. Even the “customers from hell,” those that we could not please if we wanted to, can spread their vile words into the digital world.

Have you read the reviews about your company on the Internet?

After one of my sessions during the Surfaces Convention and Trade Show, one of the attendees cornered me and asked, “How can you get a customer to remove a bad review from the Internet? We have done everything, even returned all her money and let her keep the product, but she will not respond to our requests to remove the review from Yelp.”

Welcome to the new world where the customer is no longer king; she is dictator. She demands what she wants, when she wants it, and at prices that make us all weep!

So what can we do in this consumer-centric universe?  The most important thing, of course, is to nip any problem in the bud. Survey every customer after their experience with your company. Make sure they are happy. Do what Lou Morano of Capitol Carpet & Tile and Window Fashions in Palm Beach, Fla. does and have your mother call customers to verify their satisfaction.

When you find a problem, jump through hoops to please the customer. Research shows that problems can be opportunities to increase customer loyalty. A “no-holds barred” recovery strategy will keep terrible reviews off the internet and out of your neighborhood.

The worst thing that we can do is to go online and become defensive. Defending yourself makes you look guiltier. Take responsibility for your screw-ups. It makes you human. Be transparent, because it builds trust. Don’t be concerned that you may not be able to eliminate all bad reviews. Actually, there is research that suggests that a few negative ones may increase credibility. After all, no one’s perfect.

The second worst thing you can do is to do nothing.

Let me suggest a powerful strategy that we all should doing for our businesses in this digital age. We should actively solicit our customers to leave online reviews about their experience us. As I have written in previous columns, the most powerful word in the world is the word “ask.” 

We can get almost anything we want if we ask for it. Sales people should ask for the sale; ask why when the customer objects; an interviewee should ask for the job. You cannot turn over the responsibility of getting what you want to others.

Your business needs positive reviews. An unhappy customer is more apt to give a review than a happy one. If people will listen, unhappy customers will tell everybody!  Happy customers tell a few friends, but are mostly silent. If you don’t ask or encourage them to post reviews, you won’t get them!

Do you want only the unhappy customers to write reviews?  Bad reviews rarely never go away. Once it gets in digital space, it’s for the world to see forever.

Numerous studies have shown the impact that online reviews have on businesses, and the results are staggering. Some have said that “reviews are the new advertising.” Others that, “retention is the new acquisition.” Research has found that 97% of those who made a purchase based on an online review found the review to be accurate (Comscore/The Kelsey Group, Oct. 2007).

Customers may not tell you the truth to your face, but 46% feel they can be brutally honest on the Internet and 38% aim to influence others when they express their preferences online (Harris Poll, April 2010). Reviews on a site can boost conversion or closing rates by 20% (Bazaarvoice.com/resources/stats  ‘Conversion Results’). Wall Street Journal reported that 92% have moreconfidence in information found online than they do in anything from a salesclerk or other source (Wall Street Journal, January 2009) because 75% of people don’t believe that you (businesses) tell the truth in your advertisements (Yankelovich).

They may not trust you, but 90% of online consumers trust recommendations from people they know; 70% trust unknown users, 27% trust experts, 14% trust advertising,  and 8%trust celebrities (Econsultancy, July 2009, Erik Qualman, Socialnomics).

Google has changed its ranking system of businesses that are searched on its search engine. The number of online reviews (as posted on Google) is part of their formula to what business shows up first. Google says that a business that is actively getting reviews must mean that real people are going there. You may not even need a website as long as your company has many reviews.

Hope is not a strategy. Hope will not grow your business. Today, if you want your business to grow by word-of-mouth, you have to be aware of what your customers are saying: Google your company. There are probably reviews about your business on Yelp, Google, Facebook or other review sites.

Consider being proactive in asking customers to leave reviews or to “like” your company. You may even want to reward them when they do.  No news is not good news. You can’t put your head in the sand and hope your customers will leave good reviews. You have to deliver stellar customers service and then you have to ask. In this digital world, you have no other choice.