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What’s Your Reputation Worth to You?

Originally posted at centreknowledge.com.  I encourage everyone to register there.

Brendan Bean, an Irish author and dramatist once wrote, “There is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary.”  Most of you who own or manage businesses would respectfully disagree.  However, TheNew York Times recently found a business that not only embraces its bad reputation, but also thrives as a result of it.

In a story published on November 26, 2010, David Segal profiled a web site specializing in the sale of eyeglasses and contact lenses (I will not reveal the name of the web site here to avoid giving it any more publicity).  The owner boasted about his website’s high ranking in Google when a prospective customer searches for certain terms.  How did it get that high?  Based on being as bad at customer service as possible.  With just one customer who was profiled in the article, this business (1) conducted a bait and switch with a contacts order, (2) sent what looked to be counterfeit glasses frames, (3) refused a return of the frames or a refund, (4) charged an extra unauthorized $125 on the customer’s credit card, (5) threatened physical and sexual violence on the customer saying “‘I know your address. I’m one bridge over’ — a reference, it turned out, to the company’s office in Brooklyn,” (6) found out that the customer successfully provisionally disputed the charge and surreptitiously called Citibank to withdraw the complaint while posing as the customer, (7) sent the customer a fake lawsuit to intimidate her, and (8) sent the customer an e-mail showing a picture of the front of her apartment to emphasize the fact that they knew where she lived.

The above represents the worst of the worst.  Surely that is customer service and a reputation that no company can survive on, right?  Not the case according to the company’s owner, Vitaly Borker, who has actually been arrested on multiple occasions for threatening his own customers.  According to Mr. Borker, all of the online chatter moves to push his business higher in the Google rankings when one searches for designer eyeglasses by name.  In the story, Google would not confirm or deny this fact, but one of the more well known things that affects a website’s rankings is the number of times the website is essentially named on the web, which can occur when people complain about the website and use the domain name where the website is located.

Now, it would appear that Mr. Borker’s business model is unsustainable.  Eventually the negative publicity would actually be negative.  This, of course, remains to be seen though the credit card companies, eBay, and the New York Attorney General’s office all seem to be closing in on him.

For those who do not adopt Mr. Borker’s philosophy or strategy, how do you protect your business’ reputation online?  The days of a business’ online reputation being unimportant – even for government contractors – is long over.  You can bet your contracting officer knows how to use Google.  This is a common problem many legitimate businesses have today because it is very easy to sully a company’s reputation by making a post on a complaint website.  I have seen in many instances where an unscrupulous competitor will post fake negative anonymous reviews of a competitor’s business to help their own.  The problem for companies is that often times these reviews will often be higher than the company’s own website in search engine results based on these complaint websites’ prominence.

For instance, ComplaintsBoard.com takes a complaint and publishes it without any background investigation.  How do you get a complaint off of ComplaintsBoard.com?  In my experience, they always refuse to do so even if presented with contrary proof.  To make matters more difficult, the website is actually owned by individuals residing outside of the United States, so reaching them by the normal means is difficult.  Another website, RipOffReport.com will modify a complaint after an investigation and an agreement to enter their corporate advocacy program in which the complained-about company will ensure that it engages in good customer service.  While this program is expensive, many companies find it worthwhile in order to clean up their reputation.  While the complaint will remain while the headline will change along with commentary from RipOffReport.

An even more difficult situation arises when a competing company sets up a separate website to essentially sling mud at your company.  This is often done anonymously (registration of domain names can be anonymous for a small fee) with little recourse by the affected company.  Most website hosts (which control whether the website stays live or not) will not take a website down based on a defamation claim unless there is a judgment following the end of a lawsuit.  Of course, even the lawsuit option goes out the window if everything is done overseas.

What are the lessons from all of this?  It is clear that because the Internet is relatively new, the law and statutes have not yet caught up and allowed legitimate business owners an easy and inexpensive way to keep their reputation clear on the Internet.  I always recommend searching for your own name and your company’s name in various search engines to ensure there is nothing out there.  If there is, do some research and determine whether it is a legitimate complaint (or customer) or not.  If it is legitimate, contact the customer directly and tactfully try and resolve the issue (and get the complaint off the web).  If it is not legitimate, you can start by contacting the website and seeing if something can be worked out.  Often at this step, the guidance of an attorney would be helpful if it is important enough to your company.  Former employees are also sometimes the source of negative online content.  This can be relatively easy to avoid with a non-disclosure or similar agreement.

Also, as a preemptive strike, it is always advisable to buy all domain extensions for your company’s name if they are available and register your company for every social networking website before someone else has an opportunity to do it.  These relatively easy steps (which can be accomplished in a few hours) can go a long way to saving your company a lot of heartache and attorneys’ fees in the future.  Imagine trying to contact Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. to try and lead your case that you are the real owner of your company and not someone else.  That is a daunting task at best.

In all, the Internet is a great place to promote your business whether you are inside or outside the government contract arena.  However, it is important to remain vigilant and continuously monitor the Internet to ensure customers are not being driven away.

For questions or more information please contact me at ecrusius@centreconsult.com.

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