Reputation is the most important thing to a business owner – here’s how to build yours

Sometimes all it takes is a few bad reviews to ruin an business (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Business owners everywhere will recognise the accuracy of Shakespeare’s description of reputation as a ‘bubble’.

In today’s fast-moving world, the hard-won approval of customers and competitors is more fragile and likely to float away than ever.

Businesses must work hard to build up good reputations and to keep them intact, using all of the tools at their disposal.

‘Reputations are easy to ruin and difficult to build, and in a world of abundant options and global competition they are everything for a business,’ says Dannielle Haig, business psychologist at DH Consulting.

Here is how companies of any size can ensure that they build a good reputation, and how to react when that reputation is threatened.

Build it up

When you start a new business, the blank sheet can be daunting, but reputations can be built slowly and steadily, says Lorraine Marsh, who runs The Diamond Setter based in Royal Tunbridge Wells

‘Right from the get-go, we knew we didn’t have the funds to spend on marketing and we can’t contend with the competitive marketplace online,’ she says. ‘We focused on referrals and recommendations because in jewellery and many other businesses, people buy from people.’

Knowing what you stand for and ensuring you have the certification to back it up can also be helpful, and this will depend on your brand.

Getting the right certifications will help customers trust your company (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Lisa Ingram runs babywear business LittleLeaf Organic, and says that being certified by the Soil Association and having designs made in a solar-powered Fair Trade organic factory ensured that customers knew what they were getting.

‘The consumer knows that everyone in the production chain has been treated fairly, with good wages.’

Because of concerns about greenwashing Lisa uses her social media channels to explain what customers should look for in truly environmental products. ’I try to point people to what to look for, such as the GOTS and Soil Association symbols.’

Make a good first impression

Getting the customer experience right at an early stage is important. Jonathan Winchester, who runs customer experience business insight6, says that this experienceis the ‘battleground for business’

‘We can all think of positive and negative experiences we have had as customers. Good or bad, these interactions shape our opinions of brands, products, and services we interact with and will ultimately make or break a firm’s reputation.’

Jonathan says that firms should bear in mind that it costs five times more to gain a new customer than to keep an existing one. ‘Improving your customer experience is the surest way to retain loyalty, reduce cost and increase profits.’

Case study: ‘You can’t respond when someone badmouths you’

Emma suffered when someone trolled her business with fake reviews (Picture: Emma Thomson)

Emma Thomson runs Gemz by Emz, a memorial jewellery business.

‘I have worked really hard to build trust with my business,’ she says. ‘I take the time to get to know my customers, I really do care about them and this has led to so much repeat custom and recommendations.

‘If there is ever a faulty product, I don’t make my customer send the item back to me.

‘I simply ask for a photo of it to feed back to my manufacturer and then I send out a replacement straight away. This saves customers the hassle of having to go to the post office for something that isn’t their fault, particularly because most customers are purchasing after a loved one has passed away.

‘I’ve also had a lot of celebrity customers which has helped a lot with my reputation after they have shared their reviews online.’

Despite her best efforts, Emma has suffered when an acquaintance decided to try to ruin her reputation.

‘I’ve had somebody for many years badmouthing me to people in the area, contacting my customers, replying to my customer’s reviews writing negative things, leaving me fake reviews and lying about me to influencers I’ve worked with,’ she says, adding that this has caused her ‘major distress’.

‘I’ve never reacted to or responded so as to not draw attention to it. This has shown everybody their true colours and backfired on them. I’ve stayed focused on my business and my customers and my customers actually backed me up all the way.’

Keep up your reputation

Once you’ve begun to build up a reputation as a business, it is important to guard it as much as possible as well as to build on it.

Social media is one way to build a reputation, but it can be a double-edged sword. ‘If your airbrushed social media feed doesn’t match your staff, or your customer’s experience that is soon going to be exposed. Reputation has to be earned.’ says Lorraine Bridges, Director at Bare PR.

Most customers now use testimonials and reviews on sites such as Trustpilot before they buy from a store, so it is very important to keep on top of these.

Don’t be shy to ask for testimonials, says Sapna Pieroux, founder of InnerVisions ID brand consultancy.

‘Reputations are built by one thing alone: consistent, positive customer experiences. Focus on delighting your clients at every stage and then ask for and share their testimonials and results with your audience. This applies whether you’re a local or online business, and many businesses since the pandemic have become a mixture of both.’

For businesses that rely on local custom, simple tricks to ensure customers know where you are can help build a reputation in the local area.

Testimonials are a crucial part of building a reputation (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Amber Leach, who runs marketing agency Established By Her, uses location specific hashtags to ensure people know where she is, such as #devonbusinessowner. ‘This is a great way to connect with other local businesses. Our city has one called #GeddonPlymouth and #shop4plymouth and it is for supporting local businesses and shopping locally,’ she says.

‘I share content from other local businesses that are in line with my brand. I do this via Facebook or Linked in posts, or by sharing on my Instagram stories and tags in the businesses. They quite often follow me, and reshare my post, or send a message saying thank you.’

Take complaints seriously

Testimonials and reviews are great when they are positive, but inevitably all businesses have unhappy customers. Jane Hawkes, consumer expert at Lady Janey, says you may not even know that the damage is done.

‘96% of customers won’t complain if there is an issue, 91% will simply walk away and a dissatisfied customer will tell between 10 and 15 people about that experience. This can be very damaging,’ she says.

To mitigate this type of damage, ensure you deal with problems that you are aware of.

‘Apologise sincerely, take ownership of issues and deal with them without making excuses, challenge any unfair reviews with facts as opposed to emotion, share positive customer feedback, do what you say you’re going to do and act professionally and with integrity,’ she says.

Case study: ‘When our supplier let us down, we had to take the hit’

James (right) had to act fast to stop a bad batch from ruining his business (Picture: Piece & Quiet)

James Edwards founded jigsaw company Piece & Quiet during lockdown after Covid stopped a planned move to Australia.

‘We found jigsaw puzzles were an incredible way to switch off and relax, putting down your phone for a moment and putting your mind at ease,’ he explains. ‘However, we really struggled to find anything beyond the traditional steam train and British countryside designs.

‘At this point we thought how amazing it would be to partner with talented local artists to create modern art jigsaws, and we’ve gone from strength to strength.’

But although GQ magazine described the company as ‘starting to make jigsaw puzzles cool again’, an issue with the supplier early on threatened the business’ reputation catastrophically.

‘Last Christmas, just after launching, the supplier sent us our first batch of puzzles with some pieces not separated, which was an absolute disaster for the pre-sales we had managed to get, as well as not letting people down for their Christmas presents,’ James recalls.

James says he had to move fast to protect his company’s standing.

‘We communicated to everyone who had pre-ordered via email that unfortunately we had been let down by our supplier and that there would be a delay in us being able to get our puzzle out to them, but the crucial bit was letting them know that it was because we weren’t happy with the quality of the product we would be sending out which everyone really respected.’

By acting quickly, James managed to avoid receiving poor reviews for his products.

‘We’ve actually received 100% five-star reviews with the exception of one four-star review so we’ve been really fortunate so far to not have to deal with any huge backlash. I think honesty and transparency was absolutely crucial here,’ he says.

Act fast when things go wrong

‘From my own experience, the key thing is for the senior team at an organisation to be speedy in admitting there is a problem, rather than somehow hoping it will go away,’ says Louise Ahuja from Louise B Comms.

‘The next step is to have the honest and transparent conversations about what mistakes have been made. The senior team will need to listen to all sides rather than try and introduce hasty solutions that may end up causing even more reputational damage.’

Lorraine, at Bare PR, says that it isn’t enough to simply rectify a mistake.

‘Recognise the wider implications,’ she says. ‘Brushing it under the carpet and hoping it goes away isn’t good enough. It’s how you learn from that mistake and make meaningful systemic changes across the business.

‘It’s vital you respond quickly and keep communication going. Explain to customers what went wrong, what you are doing about it, and update them as these improvements take place. Asking for customers for feedback on developments is even better.’

Making plans before things go wrong can protect your reputation later, says publicist Lucy Werner from The Wern. ‘Arranging the right protocol can save you reacting negatively in the heat of the moment.’

She advises going through all the elements of your business and identifying where things can potentially go haywire.

‘Of course, you can’t always predict why and when a crisis will hit. Fires, IT issues, breakdowns in supply chains — they are often forgivable if the responses are handled well,’ she says.

Even if it is not your fault, it is important to take responsibility.

‘Whether you are personally responsible or not, the founder must be quick in taking ownership of the situation and dealing with it quickly and without emotion,’ Lucy continues.

For the sake of your reputation, taking the flak will be worth it.

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