Online Reputation Management with VendAsta CEO, Brendan King

Your online reputation can make or break your business. Just like profit margins, what people say about your company online is important to its survival. Every day, people go online to write reviews or read reviews on sites like Yelp, Urbanspoon, TripAdvisor and Facebook. Small and medium-sized businesses rely heavily on word of mouth to get new customers or increase sales, so building an online reputation can have BIG consequences. That's why more and more businesses are turning to agencies and third party service providers for reputation management.

Today's guest is Brendan King, CEO of VendAsta, a software development company that helps small businesses monitor, manage and build their online reputations. VendAsta offers their reputation management platform through a white labeled Business Center and APIs, but as Brendan points out in our conversation, reputation management is more than just monitoring what customers are saying about you in reviews, social media or any other online source. It is about managing that information and building your digital presence to strengthen your brand.

Listen in as Brendan explains exactly what online reputation management means and how you can become an active part of the conversation your customers are having about your business.

Here's the full transcript:

CHARLES MCKEEVER: All right.

Welcome back to Open Source Marketer.

I’m your host, Charles McKeever, and today’s topic is online reputation management – how small and mid-sized businesses can manage their online reputations in an ever-changing digital world.

Joining me today to discuss the topic is VendAsta CEO, Brendan King.

Brendan and his management team have built a family of over 60 professionals that help businesses increase profits using reputation management. They’ve been at it since 2008.

Brendan, thanks for joining us today, man.

BRENDAN KING: Thanks. Thanks, Charles. Thanks for having me on the show.

CHARLES: I really appreciate you spending time. I know you’re traveling and you’re in your hotel room there. You’re doing this for us on the fly so I really appreciate it. I know we’re going to get some great information from you.

I think it’s fair to say that what people are saying online has a real impact on what businesses are doing offline. I mean, we’ve seen clear examples of this with the recent online buzz about the iPhone 6 Plus and all that’s caused. It even caused Apple to open up their testing facilities to show how they test their products. So, you know, whether it’s Yelp or TripAdvisor or Facebook, you know, word of mouth does carry a lot of weight.

But, before we get too far into that topic though, I want to hear from you what your definition of reputation management is.

BRENDAN: Sure, and you know that’s funny. There’s a lot of different people talking about reputation management in different ways. It’s not trying to scam the system or hide your identity online or change the results of how you run your business so that people can’t find bad reviews. Reputation management is really nothing different than what every small and medium business has always done all along. It’s just that the place that it’s done, the how is not different. It’s where and how that it’s done that’s actually changed.

In the past, people would come into a small business and the business owner would protect his reputation and it would travel by word of mouth. Now, the rate of change has completely changed. Consumers are empowered. Sites like Yelp or any other review site – Google Plus – have really enabled consumers to have a voice in what they think about a business, a business’ reputation. So, brand is really no longer what you say it is; it’s what your customers say it is. So, you really have to protect that brand and you have to work hard to perpetuate it because it will change and, like I said, in the old days, what could someone do? Take out an ad about the bad service you provided? Today, it’s instant and it travels far.

CHARLES: It does seem like it gets magnified as well because one media source will pick it up and then it just gets exponentially blasted out, especially, again, the example of the Apple thing, whether people had a direct experience with it or not, it was just a good story to pass around.

BRENDAN: Sure, and if it resonates and if other people feel the same way, they’re going to pass that forward and it’s going to turn into something bigger than it is.

CHARLES: I read this book called Made to Stick – I believe it is – and one of the things, the tenets of it is was that a good story gets passed around whether it’s true or not, is it believable and is it something that’s worth telling? People, they just like to do it whether they have any direct experience with it or not.

BRENDAN: That is the danger. If you look at Snopes, it’s full of those stories, right? And that’s what happens with folks with reviews. You know, if a review is particularly well-written or it resonates, people will start to pass that around. There’s a couple of examples. We have examples every week of businesses that don’t handle those things right and a story gets bigger than it needs to be.

CHARLES: Right. I worked with a client a few years back. One of the main things that they had was a glass ceiling, it was kind of a problem – you know, the website going in and having people give negative reviews.

And so, in those situations like that where someone is posting negative things about you, what do you do?

BRENDAN: Yeah. So, if we attack that first, small businesses oftentimes get defensive. The number one thing is don’t get defensive. In my experience, when someone writes a bad review, one of three things have happened. You know, in the first case, you’ve made a mistake. So, if someone in your organization has done something they ought not to have or have not served the customer properly or whatever it might be, in those cases, just apologize. And then, in all cases, offer to take it offline – you know, put your phone number in there and get them to call you.

Before I even get into the three cases, some people say don’t respond. That is just not an option anymore. You need to respond and you’re not responding for that one customer that you’re talking to in the response. You’re responding for the next thousands of customers that are going to see that response and understand whether you care.

So, first, you made a mistake. Don’t get defensive. Just apologize. Try to put your phone number in there. Get them to call you offline or wherever they need to call or communicate offline – phone number, email.

Secondly, and this is the biggest case, there’s been some kind of a misunderstanding – you know, something happened, it was a misunderstanding, both sides didn’t know about it. Thank the person for bringing it to your attention. Tell them what you’re going to do to fix that and say you’re sorry. Again, if they want more, offer to take it offline.

The third case and the toughest case is the person’s a troll. Nothing is going to make them happy. Everybody knows that these kinds of people, they’re looking for a fight so you don’t want to engage them. You want to try to take it offline.

I often say that fighting online with a troll is like wrestling with a pig; you’re both going to get dirty but the pig’s going to like it.

CHARLES: That’s excellent.

BRENDAN: You just really need to try and take that offline.

CHARLES: It’s great to hear you confirm that because I gave a talk one time for a local group and that kind of question came up – “What do you do with people who are obviously just troublemakers?” –they didn’t use the word “troll” but “troublemakers.” The way that I said it was basically, you know, social media is like walking into a room and everybody sees everybody that’s there. When someone’s being a butthead, everybody clearly knows it in the room so there’s really no reason for you to try to win that conversation because they’ve already announced themselves and all you had to do was, as you say, respond appropriately and people will see your side of it.

BRENDAN: That’s right. They’ll see it for what it is and they will actually appreciate it and, many times, other customers will come to your defense – depending on what kind of forum it is, if it’s a review or an online forum or such – but it shows people that you care by responding to them.

A lot of search engine purists will say, you know, “Don’t respond. You know, it’s going to give them search engine relevancy. People are going to link to it.” It’s just not an option anymore. You need to respond.

CHARLES: Okay.

It’s pretty obvious then that negative reviews could hurt your business, could keep people from buying your services or doubt their purchasing decisions and stuff like that. On the flip side of that, can people take advantage of that to increase their revenues? Is there a way that they can use reputation management to draw up sales?

BRENDAN: Yeah. I mean, you know, there’s a lot of things I could say here when I think about how people could use that. But a negative review is really an opportunity for you to show the stuff that you’re made of and, more to your point about what have reviews done, if you think about it, it really has taken away from some of the power of a brand.

So, let’s use a no-name laptop. You know, back in the early, you know, in the 1990s, when you bought a laptop, you wanted to buy a Dell or an IBM or a Compaq because you needed a brand name because you were worried about that and there were lots of other names that were cheaper but, you know, honing in the suspect.

Online reviews come along. People start reviewing those things. If people that you know or that you trust review a laptop and say that it’s great, you’re far less likely to pay that higher price point just for the brand. The same thing happens with businesses.

Really, this is an opportunity for you to show that, in fact, you are a trusted brand regardless of how strong your brand is relative to your competitors. It’s a chance for people to review you and say if this is good or bad. So, I’m not sure if that answered your question.

There’s another study, a Harvard Business School study in 2011 – September of 2011, I believe – showed a one point increase in a Yelp rating would affect revenues between 5 and 11 percent – that’s for a restaurant. You know, if that’s the case, that’s a huge differentiator. You really have to protect your reputation if people are making choices to come and frequent your location based on that.

CHARLES: Yeah, because, I mean, if we just take at all things being equal, I say, you know, “Sure, a negative review makes a negative result,” but let’s just say that you had neutral, nothing, all right? You could have a campaign where you could actually have positive reviews if you could get an 11 percent bump in business for essentially doing the same thing that you’re doing, just making people aware of your customer service or what-not, then why not, right?

BRENDAN: Yeah, and that’s exactly right. And so, we talk about monitor managing building the reputation. So, now, it’s just understanding what’s there. I mean, that stuff is happening. A lot of businesses say, you know, “I don’t want to worry about that stuff.” Well, it doesn’t matter. It’s happening so they should be aware of it.

And then, managing that is, you know, responding to your customers. If a customer walked into your store and said, “Hey! This sucks!” you wouldn’t just ignore it if he stood outside your store with a placard. Effectively, that’s what’s happening when you’re in a review on a review site.

And then, thirdly, is to build that reputation. This brings me into the whole idea of sort of how things have changed or Google has what they call the “zero moment of truth.” In the past, businesses used to spend money and the moment of truth came when people came into their store and the cash register rang and that’s what they called the moment of truth. They could tell that their advertising was effective or their brand was effective.

Now, what happens is people see some stimulus – whether it’s an ad or a review or anything else – and they search online for the business. First, they have to find the business so it’s really important that the business can be found because that’s the way folks find businesses now is online. Then, after they’re found, they say, “Well, what do people say about this business? What’s their reputation?” and then they make a choice to buy from that store or buy that service or product before they even actually visit the location or what-not. Then, they go to the location.

So, we have the “zero moment of truth” means “I’m going to buy from you.” The first moment of truth, that’s when the cash register rings. But then, there’s that second moment of truth, that’s when they use the product or consume and now they talk about it in social and that becomes somebody else’s first moment of truth. So, we think that’s the monitor management field. You have to be able to be prepared to promote your reputation online. It’s good enough to know about it and then try to respond to it, but now you have to also promote it and build it. It’s the same way you build great customer service; you just run your business well, but there’s a few extra things you need to do now from the social side to ensure that other people know about it.

CHARLES: As you were talking there, it sounds like there’s a lot of discussion about building quality into your products, making sure that your services are great, you know, those types of things. So, it seems like that part of the conversation is just as important as the management of the conversation that’s happening online because it’s going to drive the conversation that’s happening online. Is that what you see?

BRENDAN: There’s absolutely no substitute for running a stellar business. The guys that run the top top businesses, they don’t really even have to worry so much about reputation management. What they want to do is promote that to get the benefits of it. They want to make sure other folks know about it. You know, it’s one thing for me to say something about my business but, when other folks are saying it, it’s way better. So, if I can get other folks to say it and I can promote that, my reputation will really pay off.

CHARLES: That’s the primary reason why you take a plus-one to a party, right? So that they can talk about you instead of you talking about yourself. That’s what I always do!

BRENDAN: Absolutely! You got it!

CHARLES: Then, what are the important metrics? I mean, there’s a lot of places where you can get reviews. There are a lot of things that you can pay attention to. What are the important metrics to consider when you’re measuring this online presence?

BRENDAN: I’ll just sort of give you the top three, I would say.

One is this, and I talked about it briefly already but, the visibility or presence, you know, where are you listed and where are you not? Like, is your business listed on Google? Is it listed on Yahoo! and Bing and Yelp, Foursquare, CityGrid, and Facebook? And I can go on and on, there’s hundreds of sources. Is your business listed there? And it’s not good enough just to be listed – is it correct data? And I’ll tell you why.

If someone looks for, let’s say, a plumber in Austin, Google wants to serve them a real plumber. If that data isn’t consistent, Google’s going to say, “Well, there’s three different phone numbers or three different locations for that plumber. I’m not going to put him at the top of the list because, if I do, and that guy drives over there or phones him and he’s not a plumber, they’re not going to use Google next time.” So, Google looks at all that data and says, “This is the one I’m going to serve.” So, making that data consistent on those listing sources is basically the number one local search thing you can do as a small business. It just has to be done. I call it foundational.

The second thing is, after they find you because now they can because you’ve got that good consistent data, then you want what they find to be what they find to be a good story – that would include your review scores, what people are saying about you in social, all of these types of things. It just has to happen.

Visibility is sort of number one. Then, your reviews or your reputation is number two – it’s easy to measure; five stars is good, one star is bad.

And then, lastly, your social footprint and your audience, really. The simplest thing is how many people are liking or following you. I mean, they’re not going to if they don’t have good customer service so it all boils down to that. I mean, also then, there’s all the engagement things you can layer on on top – you know, are they sharing your posts and liking your posts and sharing your reputation?

But, basically, those three things – visibility, sort of reputation and review score, and then your social footprint or audience – those would be the basic things to start with.

CHARLES: Okay, and I’m sure that goes a lot deeper. There’s a lot of things you can pay attention to to fine-tune the conversation and you mentioned just a moment ago that there’s an infinite list of places where you could pay attention.

So, is reputation management something that an individual could do themselves or is it better served from a team effort? What’s your opinion on that?

BRENDAN: Sure. You know, you can absolutely do it yourself. It’s just, are you so inclined?

What we found is that small businesses are very busy. They’ve got lots of things to do. They need another thing to do like a hole in the head. And, if you try to do it yourself, you’ll quickly see there’s 400-plus sites. The biggest problem is that data keeps changing underneath. The data comes from a set of data providers out there on the internet. There’s four main ones – there’s Acxiom, Localeze, Infogroup, and Factual – and that data, if it’s not the same on those sites, it’ll keep on getting bad on the other sites. You can try to claim those sites and fix the data but it’s an on-going effort. There are a lot of services including ours now that will help you take that data in what’s called syndicated or send it to those data providers and then send it out and sort of lock it in and it’s not very expensive and so I would say that the cost benefit is like, you know, but some people who are inclined or want to learn more about it, they absolutely can do it themselves.

CHARLES: I don’t know if you’re a fan of Jim Kramer.

BRENDAN: A little bit, yeah.

CHARLES: I mean, you know, some people love him, some people hate it so it’s always tenuous to kind of bring him up in a conversation, but I think the one thing that he says that really makes a lot of sense is that he wants to educate you to the point so that you can at least know what questions to ask of your financial advisor, and that seems like a fair thing to do. Like you were just saying a moment ago, someone could do this on their own, sure, right? But do they need to do that? Is there any value to them doing it? It doesn’t really seem like there would be. I’m sure you’re a big advocate of education though and making them aware of the things that they should be focusing on so that you guys can have a conversation together. Is that fair?

BRENDAN: Oh, that’s a hundred percent.

When we look out there at the world, you know, it’s really funny. A local media company called Kelsey – they do surveys of the industry – they did a survey and one of the most valued things that a small business wants out of any product they buy, no matter what it is, is a DIY or do-it-yourself, self-serve. So, it’s like 86 percent of business said that’s what they value the most – whether it was any kind of service.

The truth is there are only 15 or less, 10 percent of businesses actually ever do it themselves. They want someone else to do it for them. They value this but they want someone else to do them and that’s important because, you know, we’ve actually coined the term and trademarked it, it’s called “do it with me.”

So, in the industry, we have this DIY – do-it-yourself – and then we have what’s called DIFM – do-it-for-me – and so a lot of media companies who sell products will say, “We’ll just take care of everything. We’ll do it all for you. We’ll do your social posting. We’ll post in your Facebook page and we’ll respond to customers.” The problem there is it’s very, very difficult to be authentic. You know, if someone calls and says, “Is your apartment building pet-friendly?” I can answer that question on your behalf if I’m hired by you. But, if they start asking questions about the intricacies of different apartment buildings, there’s no way that I’m going to be able to give them a valid response and I’ll have to slip it off.

The point is that, you know, I think that there value is there for businesses to hire someone to help them, to give them the basics, maybe start to build these things, start to do some posting for them, build fans. But, when fans engage, they have to be the ones to respond. You can’t outsource your customer service. You just can’t do that. When you try to do that, you’re in bad shape. So, we’ve coined the term “do it with me” and so we think that’s what we need to do is to really help businesses understand what they need to do. The first thing we always say is, you know, “Here’s what you need to do – you’ve got some reviews you haven’t responded to. Here’s how you do it,” and we show them how they should do it, and then we show them how they compare against their industry so they have some context.

You know, lots of times, when they try things like marketing, they say, “Oh, this marketing campaign was terrible. I only got 20 percent open rates,” not understanding that that’s, in fact, actually off the charts fantastic. And so, they don’t know how many times people are supposed to share their Facebook posts or how many times people are supposed to like it. So, we try to help them to understand that and show them what they’re getting into.

CHARLES: Yeah, it’s great to hear you say that because I am a big advocate of do-it-yourself to the degree that you understand what’s going on and then, after that, I want somebody else to do it.

BRENDAN: That’s right.

CHARLES: Even the things that, I’m a geek by nature and I love to learn new things and, at some point, once I’ve mastered it, I’m done. I don’t want to do it anymore. I’d rather just hand it to somebody else and let them do it.

BRENDAN: Fantastic.

CHARLES: That’s great.

Okay. So, you guys have a white label version of this. Exactly who is that for? Who is typically interested in that sort of thing?

BRENDAN: Yeah. We don’t sell direct to small and medium businesses. We sell to companies and media companies or digital agencies that already sell the product to small businesses so we have about 120,000 small businesses that use our product but they use it through some of our, you know, one of our partners and it could be, you know, the Hearst or the local newspaper, it could be the local yellow page company, or it could be the digital agency guy that’s been making ads for you and doing your bus boards and everything else and has done all along.

We provide them that ability to do the reputation, social media, and presence management on behalf of their customers. So, as far as the customer’s concerned – the small businesses – it’s the local guy.

CHARLES: Excellent. In that situation, I know you have a team of people on your end, are they assigned like a project manager? How does that work?

BRENDAN: Our white label platform, we’re a software development company, and our platform is used by our partners. So, it’s completely white labeled and we can set it up. We do the tier one training so we train their staff and then their staff handles all the customer support and everything else. If they ever have a question, they come back to ask us.

CHARLES: Okay. Excellent. That’s great.

And so, if someone is out there and they’ve read up on online reputation or they’ve even, you know, from what you’ve said so far, they’re ready to get started, what should they do?

BRENDAN: Well, you know, I think that they do need that expertise at a local level so I think they should find someone in their community who they trust, who already serves them other products that they can go to and say, “Hey, do you have a product that will help me manage my presence and my reputation and my social media?” and, even if it’s not our product, I think the best thing for them to do is to find a local partner that can really help them out.

CHARLES: As I say, I love that answer because, you know, “even if it’s not our product,” right?

BRENDAN: Yes.

CHARLES: Because, ultimately, that’s what it comes down to. That’s the way that, again, going back to having a good quality customer service, good quality, you know, you’re thinking of the customer first and I think that’s fantastic so kudos for you for that.

BRENDAN: Thank you, Charles.

CHARLES: Okay. Obviously, there’s a lot of information that’s on the VendAsta – say that for me again?

BRENDAN: VendAsta.

CHARLES: VendAsta.

BRENDAN: Yeah, VendAsta.

CHARLES: You’ve got to wrinkle your nose when you say it, “VendAsta.”

BRENDAN: If you Google it, you’re going to find it.

CHARLES: There you go! There you go. But is there a particular social media channel that we, you know, the listeners should follow if they want to get more information?

BRENDAN: Sure. We use all the channels. I mean, Twitter, Facebook, although it’s interesting, because we’re a white label platform and we don’t really market directly to the end users, we use our social channels for recruiting and, you know, local kind of stuff. So, if you go to our Facebook stuff, you’ll see, you know, we have our own sort of TED Talks every once a month and we have a whole bunch of culture stuff so you might see a lot of that. If you go to our website, that’s where you’re going to find the social platform that we talk about and how we can help our partners sell more products to small businesses and help out small businesses.

CHARLES: Okay. Excellent. There you go. Go to VendAsta.com and get all the information that you’re going to need.

BRENDAN: Exactly.

CHARLES: Great. Okay. Well, that’s all the time we have for today. I really appreciate it, Brendan. We appreciate the nuggets of information. I’m going to go back and have all this transcribed so you guys definitely be sure to check that out once it’s on the website and be sure to go to VendAsta.com and check them out.

BRENDAN: Thanks, Charles. You can take out all those “ums” and “ahhs” I did at the start.

CHARLES: Oh, no, no, no, it’s all keeping it real.

BRENDAN: All right.

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About Charles McKeever

Charles McKeever is the founder of Open Source Marketer, an online marketing and mobile, web development company that helps business owners design, build, and market their businesses' online. Connect with him on one of your favorite social channels.

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