Branding: Smear of the unknown

Written by Brian Scudamore

One of our greatest freedoms is the freedom of speech. But for business owners, it can also be a big challenge. With the prevalence of online social media today, people can say whatever they want, whenever they want, and hide behind the anonymity of the Internet. One unhappy customer, and a negative message about your business can become permanently documented on any number of blogs, consumer-review websites such as Yelp or Angie’s List, or other online social media.

Building a business is hard and, along the way, you’re bound to encounter someone who isn’t happy with the way you have built it — an employee, a franchise partner, a customer. As a result, every entrepreneur can expect to get dragged through the mud at some point. It recently happened to me, courtesy of the Billion Dollar Scam blog. Here’s how I managed the impact on my ego and my company’s culture.

The Billion Dollar Scam launched in mid-2009, created by someone claiming to be a current franchise partner of 1-800-GOT-JUNK? The goal, it appears, was to share the author’s opinion that I, Brian Scudamore, am building a brand and attracting franchise partners based on phony revenue projections. Going by the attacks the blog made on my character, someone was clearly upset with me, my leadership and my business decisions.

It was hard to read. I felt angry that someone would make such harsh and hurtful statements about me and my team — and that they probably wouldn’t have, had they not been hiding behind the veil of the Internet. I felt embarrassed knowing that others would read these slanderous comments, and frustrated that there was nothing I could do to defend the truth.

An added challenge and frustration was that the blog was receiving comments from many anonymous posters — some of them competitors, perhaps — and we had no control over what was being said. Whoever the author was, he or she feared coming to me directly to have an open discussion. I felt powerless: I couldn’t help this franchise partner, nor could I control or validate any of the communication.

I could have refuted the blogger’s message by posting my own responses on the blog, but I decided it would be better not to engage him and instead to let the blog run its course. I checked back two weeks later and, sure enough, there were people defending me — some publicly and some anonymously. Conversely, there were also people siding with the blogger. Without names attached to any of the negative comments, there was nothing I could do except drive myself crazy. And truth be told, there wasn’t anything posted there that I hadn’t heard before. So, I made a choice to never again visit the blog. But the problem just wouldn’t go away. Frustrated employees and franchise partners began asking me what I was going to do about the blog. Some were especially upset because their names appeared on it; their contributions to the company were being questioned and their mistakes were being publicly criticized. These were all people whom I believe are passionate about the brand and were working hard to move the business forward. It’s impossible not to take that personally. The impact of the blog on our internal morale was tough to absorb.

The best advice I could offer those employees and franchisees was to stop reading the blog, like I had — don’t give it energy; control what you can control. Still, as simple as that advice was, it required discipline on all our parts. It was hard not to check back and see what people were saying about us.

The conclusion of this story is somewhat anti-climactic. Eventually, the Billion Dollar Scam blog simply disappeared; the blogger seems to have removed it. I guess it ran its course, and probably became too much work. Sometimes negative blogs or other online postings come from customers who feel they weren’t given the service they were promised. I remember a particularly angry customer who felt that no one at our company had listened to or, more important, acted upon his complaint. When I discovered his blog (through a particularly useful tool called Google Alerts, which lets you easily track what’s being said about you or your company for free), I posted a message apologizing for the experience and offering to resolve the situation personally. After a five-minute phone call with him, in which I listened, apologized again and promised a full refund, I sent him a cheque along with one of my favourite business books off my shelf. (He had mentioned he was a business owner.) I felt it was good karma.

When I read his blog a couple of weeks later, he had gone from “I’ll never use your company again” to a rather extensive write-up about how well things had turned out in the end. He even mentioned the book I had sent. It never ceases to amaze me just how simple it can be to turn an unhappy customer into a raving fan. People just want to be heard.

The lesson is that when people speak up, you need to listen. Arm yourself and your team with tools such as Google Alerts and spend time regularly looking out for any negative online exposure.

And if you find some, don’t let it get you down. Instead, look at it as a challenge. What can you do to turn a negative situation into a positive memory? What can you learn from an upset client or member of your team, and how can you turn them into a raving fan? It’s a big challenge, but it’s well worth it.

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