In a rush to get up-and-running, generating revenue and turning a profit, most start-ups focus on product and marketing. This is sensible: both are building blocks of a strong and healthy reputation. But communications is often overlooked in the mix – a mistake in an era when disappointed customers, aggrieved employees and malicious competitors can make your life a misery at the drop of a hat.
Consider Uber. Despite quickly striking a chord with a great product and some smart marketing, it has suffered from very fractious run-ins with governments and the taxi industry across the world, including in Hong Kong, seen its drivers accused of assaults and rape in multiple countries, and become associated with hardline pressure tactics and the intimidation of its critics, including a threat to smear a prominent journalist. The top phrase Google Autocomplete most closely associates with Uber? Safety.
Conscious that its name and image were fraying, Uber realised it had to pay more attention to its reputation and invested in its communications. It is hardly alone – Google did much the same as concerns grew about its power and an apparent disregard for its users’ privacy. Carefully managing reputation is something every company should do long before the punches start flying, especially now that it is shaped in real-time.
Here are seven ways entrepreneurs and small business owners can build trust and protect their company’s most valuable asset – its reputation – from the start:
1. Customer experience
Your company’s reputation is defined mostly by how your customers experience and talk about you products and service. This means that every touchpoint, from your website and Facebook page to how you pick up a random phone call and speak to someone in the street, has to be meticulously prepared and managed. This is especially true online, where complaints can be made and shared instantly.
2. Culture & Values
In today’s commoditised and volatile business environment, a company’s purpose, values and culture can be a real differentiator, especially from a recruitment perspective. But these must not only be ‘true’ of the firm but also clearly articulated, understood and lived and breathed, with leadership setting the example. By most accounts, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is highly respected by his troops as a real innovator and sets a great example as a CEO, in contrast to the shady activities of Ashley Madison’s now-departed leader. Yet, arguably Uber paid too little attention to its values, resulting in waves of bad publicity.
Like sharks, startups must move quickly or risk death. Bureaucracy is anathema. But issues like the poor treatment of employees or the abuse of customer privacy can be particularly damaging from a reputational perspective, and require strong central control. Privacy, in particular, is fast becoming an Achilles Heel for many companies. Uber, for instance, permitted all its employees to access its ‘God View’ real-time customer tracking tool, resulting in the abuse of customers and even the tracking of visiting reporters. Worse, even recruits had access to customer data. Understanding the issues and having a system in place to ensure these are acted on early and responded to appropriately will mean less chance of negative buzz in the future.
Start-ups live or die on their ability to understand and exploit marketplace trends. This means you have to be listening constantly to what your customers, potential customers, investors and others are saying and doing – offline and online – to use for strategic decision-making, product development and to improve your customer service. Even more important, you must also act swiftly on these insights, especially when it is negative. Being seen to be listening and responding to criticism is amongst the best reputation insurance there is.
Young businesses suffer from being unknown. But just as important, they face the challenge of having to prove their case, of persuading people that they should be taken seriously. Uber has been able to build its credentials on the back of great customer experience and a customer base willing to seek new alternatives to a crumbling status quo. Most companies, however, have to constantly communicate what makes them so special in order to build confidence, credibility and resonance, something that requires commitment, discipline and real insight into what makes people tick.
Clear, regular, well-targeted communication is critical to establishing a strong reputation; equally important is that you ensure that everyone – from your employees, partners and investors to your customers and the general public – understand your strategy and are on the same page, otherwise your message will fail to cut through in any meaningful way. Saying one thing to someone and then turning your back and saying something quite different to someone else is also much more likely to be made public in today’s networked and instantaneous world.
Openness may be the zeitgeist, but it means wildly different things to different people. Much depends on the context. For instance, foreign companies in China are expected to be more open than their local counterparts. Every company has to figure out its own approach and bottom line. Social media management firm Buffer goes so far as to publish its financial and operating performance on a public dashboard as part of its ‘Default to Transparency’ value. In general, the more open and honest you are the more likely you are to gain trust, especially when things go wrong.
Charlie Pownall is a communications and online reputation advisor who divides his time between Hong Kong and London. His book Managing Online Reputation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) sets out how companies can protect and defend their reputations on the internet and social media. charliepownall.com
Managing Online Reputation is a practical guide to protecting and defending your company’s name and image on the internet and in social media.