The old adage says reputations take a lifetime to build and only 15 minutes to destroy. And with the emergence of social media and online reviews, never has this saying rung truer for our travel and hospitality industries.
In 2012, positive reputations that could have been earned over years of hard work and investment are now vulnerable to damage by disgruntled customers with a simple press of the enter key. The unrelenting and highly visible online review is now influencing consumer behaviour in a way that no one ever imagined. And while the benefit of this phenomenon is making businesses more accountable for the experiences they offer, the big question for tourism and hospitality operators is, how do they respond and protect themselves within this highly influential ‘make or break’ platform?
We live in a time where social media is increasingly absorbing some of the roles traditional media is losing its grip on. Where travellers may once have read the Sunday Star Times’ Escape section, they are now more likely to visit the internet first to scan reviews written by 'real' people. Engagement with websites such as TripAdvisor and Expedia is growing at an astonishing rate and becoming the first touch point for consumers looking for information on anything from hotels to flights and the hottest spots to check out.
A recent survey commissioned by AA Tourism revealed that over 50 percent of travellers look for online appraisals or accommodation ratings before booking holidays. But this form of consumer research doesn’t stop at the tourism industry, of course. Kiwis are becoming more adept at seeking reviews on anything from restaurants to mobile phones or even to see if a website to buy goods from is reputable.
The way Kiwis are increasingly embracing these online platforms is in line with global trends. AA Tourism’s own online review service ‘Been There’ has received over 20,000 reviews in less than two years and it gives operators an opportunity to respond to reviews made by customers. This is proving particularly popular with businesses that want detailed feedback, whether this is positive or negative, so they can employ best practices and better engage with customers.
Sometimes it can be difficult to determine which opinions are the result of a genuine consumer experience so we make sure that only validated reviews from true customers are published. This way visitors know any feedback they read is a legitimate account of the service offered. It comes as no surprise that many consumers use Facebook and Twitter as their preferred platform to proffer opinions, so monitoring online feedback shouldn’t stop at third party sites. Setting up Google Alerts is a simple and effective way to regularly track any new content being posted.
Having your own social media platform where consumers can go to provide feedback is a valuable tool that offers more control than other third party sites. As your online community builds, your fans and followers can become your biggest advocates, defending you if someone starts criticising your brand or service.
Putting a strategy in place to respond swiftly to comments made on Facebook and Twitter can help protect your online reputation and leave a more positive and lasting impression. Implementing an escalation policy is also a great tool to help know when and how to respond. This also gives you an opportunity to publically apologise for bad service and be seen to take steps to rectify it, which can also work in your favour.
However, it is critical to have someone who can commit time to regularly monitor and engage this audience on an ongoing basis and provide immediate two-way conversation when needed. It’s important that you check your social media platforms at least daily as prompt response is also now expected. Slowness to acknowledge errors or correct wrongs will also be punished by an ultra-critical public.
In addition, it’s also important to harness the power of positive reviews by encouraging customers who you know have had a good experience to post on websites that rank highly in search engines. This way you can help push down negative or unfounded content off the first page of online search results. Utilising public relations and creating branded content online is another way of helping to manage what content appears first in online searches. Very few people make it past the first one or two pages so finding ways to control what appears first can be helpful.
While putting these reputation management steps in place is important, it’s critical to also assess your preferred approach to all facets of customer service at a more grassroots level. Ensuring all employees are educated on the correct process of handling complaints can be instrumental in preventing issues from escalating to a point where customers feel like their only option to be heard is to vent online in the public domain.
With the power of the written word in the online domain growing exponentially, online reputation management should form part of any proactive digital marketing strategy. This also needs to include steps of how to respond to negative attacks. Don’t let the words of a few sabotage the brand credibility that you have laboured for so long to build up.
- Peter Blackwell is the chief executive of AA Tourism’s Club Tourism.