Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Reputation in the Internet Era

Back during the height of the internet boom, lots of folks were talking about how much the internet changes things. That's been tamped down a bit, but it really has been an important innovation, in a lot of ways. Small stuff: I no longer own a phone book, for example. When I want to look up a phone number, I go on the Web to do it.

One area where, I think, businesses may still be behind the curve is in the way that their reputation can take big hits when they do a bad job with customers. It's not just word-of-mouth any more -- it's word-of-mouth plus word-of-blog, review site, etc. I still get hits on my U.S. Airways Customer Service -- SUCKS post, for example. Google "Dell Hell," and Jeff Jarvis's page will be one of your top hits. My view that Charlie Palmer Steak has good food and lousy service is available for viewing.

It used to be that a restaurant could feel pretty safe in serving rotten food, and then making inadequate recompense to the disgruntled diner. Oh, it could be a secret shopper or incognito restaurant critic, but the chances are it's just some guy. You might lose one customer, or get bad word-of-mouth -- and word-of-mouth is important to restaurants. But the scope of the damage will be limited. Now, however, there's a lot more room damage.

Witness this post back in May, by Stephen Dubner at the Freakonomics blog (via Ian Ayres at Balkanization and then this more recent post at Dubner's blog). Sure, Dubner is a real, live journalist, but he's also a blogger. And, like bloggers, he has the freedom to write about what he feels like. In this case, a restaurant called French Roast served him rotten chicken. When he sent it back, they fought him on it. And then they gave him little recompense -- a few measly bucks off. The manager though she'd gotten him out of there, meek and mild-mannered. And she was right -- he didn't put up a fight.

He wrote about it on his blog. And now it's there, fore all to find, whether through search engine or just following some random links, as I did. And the worst part is, most of the other reviews I've read online look pretty positive. It was probably just a fluke, albeit one that really shouldn't have happened. But fixing it right would probably have been less damaging than incurring the reputational cost associated with getting hammered by a reasonably well-read blogger.

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