Reputation Matters
By George Ludwig

There is a new profit center for 21st century business: reputation. Because customers are just a Google search away from hundreds or even thousands of posts about a company’s actions, those organizations that are perceived as untrustworthy aren’t likely to be around very long. Savvy leaders know that reputation is built one person and one customer interaction at a time and are based on the actions of each employee.

Here are some strategies to enhance your company’s reputation:
* Create clear companywide reputation standards. Clear guidelines for reputation building will ensure that everyone in your organization understands exactly what the standards mean and that a huge emphasis will be placed on the standards during their time with your company. Have employees sign a “World-Class Reputation Contract” that emphasizes trustworthiness, which is built on a foundation of three personal principles: service-centricity, character, and competence. When an employee excels at meeting the standards, publicize his or her good work. Reward the employee in some way so that others will be inspired to reach the same achievement.

* Appoint a VP of reputation. Put someone in charge of reputation and announce the appointment with a big splash. Hold a companywide meeting (perhaps even a kick-off event) and announce the identity of your new VP. The new appointee will define customer service benchmarks, define shared values, monitor employee adherence to values, and designate the “dealbreakers”—those values that can’t be violated at any cost. For example, maybe for your company it’s calling a customer back within two hours or requiring that employees attend two reputation management meetings each year. How do you find such a person? It’s best if you can pinpoint an effective and loyal “people person” within the organization and bestow the title on him or her. In fact, you might consider polling employees to find out which of their co-workers is best suited for the job.

* Hire the best people and keep them happy. Greatness attracts greatness. When an organization becomes known for being the best, the best people want to work there. What’s more, they want to stay with the company. These top people become your reputation protectors. You won’t have to spend too time enumerating every reputation standard, because talented employees have been living them in their previous jobs and in their daily lives. If you have great talent working for you, it’s much easier to stay ahead of your competition. That success will attract more top performers, who will generate more success, which will attract still more top performers. It’s a self-perpetuating “good reputation’” cycle.

*Ask for customer feedback.
Here’s a great way to take an honest assessment of your corporate identity and reputation: Ask everyone—customers, prospects, colleagues, friends, and family—about their experiences with your company. Make customer surveys and comment cards a staple of your customer service so that you constantly receive feedback from your biggest critics. And once you’ve collected all of this feedback, act on it! Figure out how to solve the problems raised and how to capitalize on those things at which your company excels. If a customer compliments you on a job well done, ask him or her for a testimonial. Once you’ve collected these positive testimonials, post them on your company Website and in your marketing mailings. It’s a great way to spread the word about your great reputation.

* Know who you are. Believe you can be better. Take stock of the state of the company right now. What motivates you and the other leaders? What motivates your employees? In which areas do you excel…and in which ones do you fall short? These are the types of questions you and your employees need to consider in order to assess your company’s reputational strengths and weaknesses. It’s never too early or too late to change. Just start making positive changes now so that you can ensure that your company has a bright future. Set goals for your company’s improvement and get your employees excited about building a great reputation.

*Appearances count; upgrade your image. Visual credibility plays a huge role in building a great reputation. However firmly you believe the adage “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” customers and potential customers will do just that. If they see a messy office space and unprofessionally dressed employees, they’ll question the company’s work ethic. If, on the other hand, they receive pristinely packaged products from your company and interact with professionally dressed employees who are always polite and respectful, they’ll feel you are more credible. In the same way people are told to dress for the job they want and not the one they have, your organization should “dress” for the reputation it wants to build. Become an industry headliner by specializing in a market niche. No one can be all things to all people. In your companywide self-assessment, you may find that the reason your business has a subpar reputation is because it is spread too thin. Concentrating your business in a single industry niche allows everyone within your company to maximize their expertise, credibility, and reputation. And it helps the company put out better products and provide better service. Consumers today have big challenges, and they want proven solutions from a company that understands the specific nuances of their problems. They don’t want generalists.

* Choose character over cash. When you think about someone with good character, what traits come to mind? How about integrity, honesty, humility, and a commitment to helping others? These are all elements you and your employees should possess. In business terms, good character means that neither you never lie to a customer, even if it means you risk losing his business. It means refusing to take on a client who has shady business practices or who has disrespected one of your employees. It means firing people who don’t live up to your ethical standards. Good character will keep your revenue high, your relationships with customers strong, and will provide you with a reputation for being a company that people can trust.

*Put your best reputation foot forward. When you’ve developed a legitimately excellent reputation, don’t be afraid to spread the word. Send out marketing messages about your company’s solid reputation. Use public relations campaigns, results-oriented marketing, and value-providing networking to convince potential customers who aren’t sure what your company is all about. Here are a few techniques you may want to consider:

*Advance marketing. This can include e-mails, e-zine newsletters, direct mail promotions, faxes, and so forth. First,   target your audience; make sure your list is well-defined and truly bona fide. Next, have a single, clear-cut objective for your communication, making sure it is unique and will stand out. Finally, commit to frequent communications, not a one-time campaign.

* Personal contact marketing. This involves either in-person or telephone contact with potential customers. It includes referrals and testimonials, networking, customer site visits, customer seminars, and association involvement. One suggestion: Begin building an advocate list of 25 to 40 clients, contacts, and friends whom you believe will refer you to the most new sales opportunities. Stay in touch with your advocates at least once a month. When they provide a referral, send them a tangible reward—say, a book, tickets to a game, or at least a thank-you card.

* Headliner marketing. This includes public speaking, writing articles, and obtaining publicity. It positions you or other company leaders as specialists.

* Stay on message in every marketing piece.
Every time a customer sees an ad or receives an e-mail from you, it should reinforce your great reputation and those positive traits you hold dear—honesty, authenticity, and the absolute best customer service possible.

* Build goodwill inside and outside your company. You may already know that the word sell derives from the Scandinavian root selzig, which literally means to serve. And that’s what every company should be focused on—serving its customers. Companies with great reputations serve their customers so fervently that an almost unbreakable customer loyalty develops. Building an organization so focused on serving starts from within, with company leaders who show their appreciation for their employees and employees who then respect their leaders and each other. Eventually, the consistently great service you and your employees provide your customers will come back to you two-fold because satisfied customers not only remain loyal but also tell others how they were treated.”

When you make reputation a central tenet of your business strategy, an interesting thing happens: Your people benefit as much as (or possibly even more than) your customers. You create an organization of fulfilled, successful, and happy human beings—and those are the kinds of employees who stand firmly by their work and who naturally talk up their company to anyone who will listen.

Consider an interesting practice of the ancient Romans, who were known for their achievements in construction. When they finished building an arch, the engineer in charge was expected to stand beneath it when the scaffolding was removed. If the arch didn’t hold, he was the first to know. Encourage everyone at your organization to build its reputation, and, in turn, their own, so that they can stand beneath it with confidence and pride.

About the Author:

George Ludwig is president and CEO of GLU Consulting. He is the author of Power Selling: Seven Strategies for Cracking the Sales Code and Wise Moves: 60 Quick Tips to Improve Your Position in Life & Business (Kaplan Publishing). He’s also a columnist and frequent contributor to Entrepreneur magazine, Investor’s Business Daily, Selling Power, and numerous business radio programs.

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