The Internet magnifies bad performance and behavior.

The Internet can be a wondrous tool for your business. Some of you are booking service calls and/or managing projects over the Internet, and have discovered many other beneficial uses.

Yet, going all the way back to fire and the wheel, every human discovery and invention has carried the potential for both progress and destruction. The same yin and yang hold true for the Internet.

Modern information technology enables us to communicate with one another and the world at-large to an astonishing degree. The rise of various consumer referral services, electronic forums and social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook enable any person with a gripe to access audiences as sizable as only the best-selling authors of yesteryear could reach. In some ways that is good. The downside can be very bad for businesses with real or imagined shortcomings. That’s because the electrons conveying this information do not differentiate between fair and unfair, truth and falsehoods or positive vs. negative publicity.

Even the best companies will end up with a disgruntled customer now and then. One widely reported study from years ago showed that on average a dissatisfied customer will tell 15 other people about his/her bad experience, while customers who are served beyond expectations will tell only three. That five-to-one ratio tells a daunting tale of urgency for businesses to please their customers.

Except that’s old data, based on a study done before our Internet Age was in full swing. Information used to spread slowly over chance encounters and casual conversations. Now griping customers have the ability to share their anger and frustration with thousands of people instantaneously.

Consider the following excerpted comments about plumbing firms, drawn from a consumer forum in the Chicago area.

  • Whatever you do, STAY FAR AWAY from this company!!!

  • This is a rip-off operation. High-pressure sales to do expensive repairs, like new sewer, then they do a horrible job and say they don’t guarantee the entire repair… Steer clear... very, very clear from these scheisters.

  • (Company Name) owned by (Name of Owner) is a dishonest business. This is supposed to be a union shop. However, Mr. (Owner) is being sued for nonpayment of pension funds along with breaking all the union rules. He does not care to run an honest American business any longer.

    There are two sides to every story and companies that get skewed may have a different version of events than what’s described by their critics. That doesn’t matter. How many people would bother to take time to seek out the company’s point of view? The vast majority of people would just take their business elsewhere.

    Scathing reviews like those just cited are floating all around the Internet. Do a Web search of your company name just to track what people might be saying about you. Do another Web search posting “plumbing complaints” along with the name of your community. If you’re in a big metropolitan area, you may well find a half-dozen or more Web sites offering consumers the opportunity to sound off.

    Do you have any recourse to set things straight if you feel you’ve been wrongly accused? The consumer forum from which I took the aforementioned comments offers accused companies the opportunity to respond. That’s nice, but none of the companies raked through the coals took them up on the offer, and I’m not even certain the owners were even aware of the Web sites and the attacks on their integrity.

    Even if they responded, it wouldn’t do much good. Reputations are fragile and often can’t withstand the initial salvo. I’ve heard of a few companies filing defamation lawsuits against cyberspace snipers, but those are hard to win and mostly end up enriching a couple of lawyers while doing little to restore the damaged reputation.

    So what’s a contractor supposed to do if savaged electronically?

    Well, remember that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Some of the companies who repeatedly come under fire may well deserve to be pounded for unfair business practices, while most reputable companies manage to avoid being targeted online. Some even receive overwhelmingly positive comments from customers, in which case the Internet can be one of their most valuable marketing tools.

    The best defense is to perform well and be honest in dealing with customers. That’s always been true, of course. It’s just that the speed and scope of modern information technology raise the stakes higher than ever.

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