Protecting your company's reputation online might sound like something for massive multi-nationals to worry about, but it's important for equestrian businesses of all sizes too. Find out why and how you can get your customers' comments working to give you a commercial advantage

All equestrian business owners know that recommendations from current or previous clients can play a significant role in their commercial success. Whether you run a tackshop, are a farrier, have a rug cleaning company or are an equine therapist, if your customers are happy with the service you provide, there is a strong likelihood they will tell their friends.

With the horse world being such a tight knit community, each individual has many like-minded connections through friends, family and colleagues, so word of mouth can spread positive messages about your company far and wide. Thanks to our love of social media, and all things online, this opportunity to share great experiences has recently moved on to another level.

But while every business tries to provide a good service to each customer, things don’t always go according to plan. When things do go wrong, the social media is typically the first place your customers will turn to moan about their experience, sometimes before they have contacted you direct to give you an opportunity to resolve the issue. So what can you do?

Protect your business: know what’s being said

You can only act to protect your business’ reputation online if you know what is being said in the first place. One of the simplest ways to ‘own’ feedback is to have a website, blog, facebook page, twitter account, linkedin profile, etc, where it is easy for customers to contact you.

You will need to check all of these locations frequently, so you can respond to questions and complaints when they arise. Complaints left to fester risk becoming a much larger problem. A prompt response will often quickly resolve an issue, preventing it from being blown out of proportion.

If you receive a complaint online, reply in an open and consultory fashion. If the customer has the wrong end of the stick, by all means explain your position, but do so in a non-judgemental way. Remember this conversation is open for potential customers to read and they may decide whether they do or don’t use your business based on how you deal with complaints.

If possible invite the customer to take the conversation offline so you can speak to them either face-to-face or over the phone. In most cases, a verbal discussion is more likely to resolve the problem than conversing via email or online. If you do have to deal with the matter via email, remember before pressing send that you may find a copy of that email posted online for all to read.

No matter how tempting it may be, do NOT delete negative online comments. This is almost certain to cause the customer to post again both on your social media pages, and elsewhere, deriding your lack of customer service and poor business practises. If responded to in the right way, complaints can be used as an opportunity to show that you do care about your customers and you want to resolve their issues in a positive, professional and pro-active manner.

Protect your business: find comments elsewhere

While you hope customers will come to you direct with any concerns they have, it’s quite common for customers to use social media, review sites and online forums to air grievances they have, whether perceived or justified.

One of the easiest ways to keep track of your company’s general reputation online is to frequently type your company’s name into google.co.uk. Visually scan through the results that come up to see what information is related to your business. If your business has quite a generic name, try adding other related terms like ‘horses’ ‘equestrian’ ‘saddler’ etc, until you see content about you.

If you find comments that are positive, then that’s great. Take a moment to log on to that website and respond. Thank that individual for their comments and invite them to use you again. This is an important step that can help turn happy one-off customers into repeat loyal clients. The fact you’ve taken the time to respond will also encourage potential customers to view you in a positive light.

If you find comments that are not positive, don’t panic. It’s extremely unlikely that you will be able to remove that comment/review, even if you think it is damaging to your business. Think back to see if you can remember the situation being referred to. It may be that your memory of it will be different to that being described, but that doesn’t mean the customer is wrong or has malicious intent. They just have their own view of the situation, which will be different to yours.

Log on to that website (you may have to register first) and respond in a non-confrontational way. As above, invite the user to contact you direct to try to resolve the problem. Don’t allow yourself to be dragged into a he-said, she-said discussion about what happened. A useful guide is to reply to a comment online up to twice, and if the matter hasn’t been resolved by then invite the user to take the discussion offline instead.

Hopefully you will be able resolve the problem to the customer’s satisfaction, in which case you could post on the review/thread/post saying how pleased you are to have resolved the problem for them and that you hope to do business with them again. You may find the customer will then do the same. But don’t post if you suspect the customer isn’t totally satisfied, as that may cause the matter to flare up again.

You won’t be able to resolve ever single complaint or negative review posted online, but the fact you’ve allowed the customer to have their say and responded in a helpful way, should stand your business’s reputation in good stead. So rather than worrying about trying to get negative online reviews removed, take them as an opportunity to demonstrate your excellent customer service and you business’ reputation will be bolstered rather than damaged as a result.