Like most small business owners, Barbara Thomas, who runs Ruby Janes Retro Fabric, wants her customers to be happy and to recommend Ruby Janes to friends and family. Thats why Thomas makes it a point to monitor what people say about her business online, on sites like Facebook and Twitter, as well as on forums that relate to her industry, on a daily basis.
When she comes across a positive comment, she always acknowledges the comment and the commenter quickly, on the site where the comment was left, and thanks the commenter for taking the time to share. That kind of positive word of mouth, said Thomas, is priceless and often leads to repeat business as well as new customers.
As for negative comments, they warrant special attention, Thomas explained.
For example, a few years ago, when she came across a post in a Google group on quilting and read that a Ruby Janes customer was unhappy about how long it took to receive her fabric, Thomas immediately responded in the public forum, so that potential customers would see that I am not a business that ignores unhappy customers. I identified myself as the shop owner, apologized for the slow shipping and promised the customer that if she would give me another chance I would absolutely do better.
The result: The customer gave Ruby Janes another chance.
We spoke with small business owners who provide tips on how to manage whats being said about your business online, especially on popular social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Yelp, and how you can use what you hear and read to improve your online image and increase traffic and sales.
How Much Time Should You Invest?
Tom Fernandez, the co-founder, brew maestro and vice president of Fire Island Beer Company, checks Facebook and Twitter, as well as various beer-related forums, daily to see what people are saying about his company which is a good rule of thumb.
You should be spending at least 20 minutes a day on social media sites, said Tom McFeeley, a public relations and social media consultant whos worked with dozens of small (and much larger) businesses. Maybe spend five minutes at 9 a.m., another five at noon and at 3 p.m. Then check again in the evening. Or check in between completed tasks. Either way, make sure youre online enough to follow the conversations [and customers] that you care about.
Who Should Monitor Your Reputation?
Many busy small business owners outsource, or may be tempted to outsource, the social media aspect of their business, and there is nothing wrong with that. But knowing that the owner or a member of the business is actually the one posting and/or tweeting and replying to posts and/or tweets creates a special bond between customers (both existing and perspective) and the business.
It is especially important for business founders to be online monitoring because it teaches you who your customers are, what works and what doesnt, said Fire Island Beer Companys Fernandez. Also, customers like to know (and are often pleasantly surprised) when they learn that they have a direct line to the founder(s) of a company. So it is definitely worth scheduling time in your day for online upkeep.
And monitoring Twitter and Facebook neednt be time consuming.
I manage all of our online activities, explained Scott Seaman, co-owner of Christophers Wine & Cheese in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. While Im in front of a computer updating our online inventory, I have TweetDeck running. Its been the best program for Twitter because it lets me segment different groups and searches. I have all my Facebook permissions set to automatically e-mail me if anyone posts or comments, so I can respond as quickly as possible same with our blog.
Why Monitor What Customers Say
Small businesses have always been able to compete with larger or chain stores by offering better, more personal service, explained Ruby Janes Thomas. Having an online presence is an extension of that.
That presence, according to Thomas, keeps you tuned in to what your customers like, lets you respond to their concerns quickly, and gives you the opportunity to create a lot of goodwill. "For example," said Thomas, "I routinely provide links to free quilt patterns, have random drawings for free fabric, spotlight customers that own their own businesses, and my followers LOVE all of these. Its also just is good business to know what customers are saying about you.
If a customer says something good about your business, Thomas said that tells you youre moving in the right direction. And if it's a negative comment, she said you need to address the issues right away.
There's an old adage: a happy customer tells two people about their experience; an unhappy customer tells everyone, Thomas said. Never has that been truer than in the era of social media. [Entrepreneur and PR guru] Peter Shankman tweeted about a bad experience at an Omni hotel, sharing that bad experience with his 50,000 followers. Fortunately Omni has folks monitoring their reputation and solved the problem ASAP.