Defending Your Brand Online

It takes years to build a brand. Unfortunately, there aren’t many shortcuts. You build a brand—like a reputation—one impression at a time. Every encounter with a customer results in either a “deposit” or a “withdrawal” in your “brand account.”

Femal Martial Artist Kicking into the Air - Photo courtesy of ©, Image #1023601

Photo courtesy of ©

Twenty years ago, if a customer had a bad experience with your company, it didn’t matter quite as much. Sure they could tell their friends, and if enough people had bad experiences, they could tell their friends. Eventually, it would catch up with you. But it didn’t happen overnight.

But today, things are different. Digital communication has changed everything. If a customer has a bad experience, he can email his friends, Twitter his followers, or blog about his experience. In the blink of an eye, one bad experience can cascade into thousands—and even millions—of impressions. Brands can be damaged in a few days.

For example, David Alston Twittered about his wife’s bad experience with UHaul. He said,

My wife just went through a totally rude customer service experience with our local UHaul rep. Downright rude. Do they want the business?”

Within seconds, he broadcasted this message to the 1,500-plus people who follow him on Twitter. Within an hour two dozen others used Twitter to share their own negative experience with UHaul. Thousands of negative impressions ensued. The conversation snowballed.

David then cancelled his reservation with UHaul and booked a truck with Penske. He Twittered about the excellent customer service they gave him. This, too, snowballed.

In the space of a few hours, UHaul lost thousands of dollars in revenue and Penske likely picked up thousands more. This doesn’t even count the damage to UHaul’s brand. All because UHaul didn’t understand the raw power of today’s consumer.

This kind of experience gets replicated on Twitter hundreds of times a day. It also happens in email messages, blogs, chat rooms, and discussion forums.

I experienced this phenomenon first-hand when I had a bad customer experience recently. I Twittered about the experience and then blogged about it. I was amazed at how people piled on with one bad customer story after another.

This got me to thinking. If you are responsible for building or maintaining a brand—and this includes every CEO, business owner, marketer, publicist, and customer service representative—you need to know how to defend your brand online. The stakes have never been higher.

Here are seven suggestions for defending your brand in the digital age:

  1. Build an online presence. The time to build an audience is before you need it. You need people for whom you add value, a small army of followers, if you will, who can help you when you need it. This is why every CEO, brand manager, and department leader should create a blog, a Facebook page, and get active on Twitter.

    It’s really not that difficult, even for the technically challenged. If you really don’t have a clue, enlist the help of a co-worker—or perhaps even your children!

    If I had to select one place to start, I would pick Twitter. Then I would create a Facebook page. Finally, I would start a blog. I don’t think there’s a less expensive way to create brand equity than by using these three tools.

  2. Monitor the conversation. You must use online tools to monitor what is being said about your company and your brands. I use Google Alerts to monitor news and blogs. I use Summize to monitor Twitter. These tools enable you to engage in the art of “digital listening.”

    As a result, I know within minutes when someone mentions me, my company, or one of my brands. I know precisely what is being said, by whom, and how I can respond if I chose to do so. It’s never been easier to eavesdrop on what your customers are saying. And it doesn’t cost you a dime.

  3. Respond quickly to criticism. Like the old ad says, “speed kills.” If you don’t respond quickly, you lose control of the conversation. It takes on a life of its own. For example, though David Alston has blogged about his bad experience with Uhaul at least twice (see here and here), no one from UHaul has posted a comment in response to either of his posts.

    A friend of mine, Anne Jackson, had a bad experience with American Airlines. She Twittered about it as it happened on April 6, 2008. She then blogged about it a few days latter under the title, “American Airlines is the Devil”. Some 38 people commented on the post, many with their own American horror stories.

    Anne told me that she gets about 3,500 visitors a day to her blog. Another 1,000 or so people heard about her experience via Twitter. If American had been monitoring their brand online, they could have been the first to comment on her post. Instead thousands of people read about her experience, and then they read comments on her blog from other American customers who have had bad experiences.

    For the record, on May 29, American called Anne, apologized for the “mix up” back in April, and gave her 7,500 award miles. Amazingly, it took them almost two months to respond. How many people read about Anne’s experience in the meantime? And, oh, by the way, the original post is still up and American has yet to post a comment.

  4. Admit your mistakes. Why is this so difficult? When you screw up, the only—and I mean ONLY—acceptable response is to take full ownership. “Sir, I am so sorry that you have had this experience. There is no excuse. We made a terrible mistake, and we’re going to make it right.” If you catch yourself apologizing and then using the word “but,” stop dead in your tracks and back up. That little conjunction should be like a blinking red light, indicating that you are not taking ownership.

    Unfortunately, the use of “but” completely negates the apology. To quote Dr. Phil, “You can either be right or you can be happy.” You can go a long way toward fixing a problem by simply accepting responsibility rather than blaming the customer or some other factor.

    If you are going to apologize—and you should—make it a full apology. Avoid the word “but” like the plague. Take the hit to your pride and own the problem. The customer is always right. Even when he isn’t.

  5. Understand the lifetime value of the customer. I first heard the concept in Carl Sewell’s excellent book Customers for Life [affiliate link]. Sewell was a Cadillac dealer in Dallas, Texas. It didn’t take him long to figure out that his customers were worth more than a single transaction. He calculated that every customer is potentially worth $332,000, if he returns every few years and buys a new car. (The book was written in 1990, so at today’s inflation-adjusted prices, it’s probably worth twice that.)

    Now consider American Airlines. The lifetime value of their business customers are, I’m sure, worth tens of thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—of dollars. Fortunately, my experiences with American have been mostly positive. But if I had a bad experience like Anne’s, think of the implications.

    For the fun of it, let’s do the math: Last year, as the CEO of Thomas Nelson, I spent more than $12,000 with American Airlines. Now let’s assume that I travel about the same amount every year, over a 40-year career (from age 25 to 65). Based on this, in simple math, unadjusted for inflation, my lifetime value to American Airlines is $480,000. That’s a big number.

    But this only begins to scratch the surface. That’s what I am worth to American—just me. But what about everyone else in my circle of influence? We probably have 200-plus employees a year traveling on American flights. We have our Women of Faith and Revolve speaker and production teams. I also have those who follow me on Twitter (currently over 33,000) or read my blog (currently over 100,000 a week). The “ripple effect” is significant. Millions of dollars are at stake.

    But I am only using the American as an example. Again, I want to emphasize that my experience with them has generally been good. All things being equal, they are my airline of choice. My point here is more personal: What is the lifetime value of your customers or constituents? Have you ever stopped to calculate it? Not only do you need to understand what is at stake, but so do your people. It is literally the future of your business and your brand.

  6. Empower your employees to solve problems. As a customer, there is nothing worse than having a head-on collision with bureaucracy. We’ve all been there. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but I’ll have to check with my supervisor.” Or worse, “I’d like to help, but we have a policy against that.”Tim Ferriss, author of the bestseller, The 4-Hour Workweek [affiliate link], tells his employees and contractors,

    Keep the customers happy. If it is a problem that takes less than $100 to fix, use your judgment and fix the problem yourself. This is official written permission and a request to fix all problems that cost under $100 without contacting me” (p. 105).

    I think that’s a reasonable approach. In fact, I would raise the ceiling to $200. I also request that employees notify their supervisor after-the-fact, so that if there is a systemic problem that led to the bad customer service, it can be addressed and fixed once-for-all.

    Ferris goes on to note, “Its amazing how someone’s IQ seems to double as soon as you give them responsibility and indicate that you trust them” (p. 106). It amazing how fast you can turn a bad customer experience into a good one when you empower frontline employees to solve problems immediately, without delay. Nothing communicates to your customers that your company values them more than this.

  7. Exceed your customers’ expectations. Every customer problem is an opportunity to create a WOW experience. But it’s not enough to meet their expectations, you have to exceed them. Anything less is merely restitution. It just gets you back to even.

    Recently, I was having some memory problems with my MacBook Pro. I took it to the Apple Retail Store. The “Genius” (that’s literally what they are called) fixed the memory problem quickly, which is what I expected. He then returned my computer to me and said, “Mr. Hyatt, I hope you don’t mind, but while we were checking your computer, we noticed that the battery was not seating correctly, so we went ahead and replaced it with a brand new one.” Wow! Now that’s customer service—and one of the reasons I keep buying Apple products!

One final thought: It’s also a great idea to listen to the conversations about your competitors. For example, if the Marriott had a Google Alert setup for “Sheraton” they could listen online for customers who get frustrated with their Sheraton experience enough to blog about it. When it happens, they could be the first to post a comment:

I’m sorry you had such a bad experience at the Sheraton. I can’t speak for them, but I can tell you that the Marriott has been ranked #1 in the world for customer service by both Expedia and As an incentive to give us a try, I’d like to extend a 20% discount to you and your readers. When you make your reservations, simply give the operator the following promotional phrase: “Experience the Difference.” You can also use this if you make your reservations online. We look forward to serving you.”

Question: So what are people saying online about your brand? Do you even know? More importantly, what are you doing about it?