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In the internet we trust

Your reputation and credibility are on the line in today's world, so know how to request online reviews and respond to less-than-stellar comments.

In the internet we trust
Know how to positively address negative online comments.

I was wet, cold and slouched beside my broken-down car. Desperate for a tow truck, I pulled out my iPhone and Googled. In less than a second, I had three nearby tow services plotted on a map. Each was heralded by a string of stars. The first business boasted a 4.9-star rating from 56 reviews. The other two barely topped 3.0 and had only single-digit responses. I clicked the five-star listing and 20 minutes later was surveying the world from atop a toasty tow truck.

I had leveraged technology to get me out of a jam, selected a service based on advice from total strangers, and completely bypassed traditional advertising and marketing channels. Ten years ago, this system couldn’t be imagined. Today, I can’t imagine living without it.

Welcome to the new economy of trust.

Technology’s Influences

Humans are hardwired to compete and collaborate. These two traits are arguably more responsible for our ascension to the peak of the predatory ranks than any other twist in our 23 pairs of chromosomes. It’s no surprise that technology has tapped into this primal predisposition and created the sharing-and-trust economy.

If you distill this movement to its core elements, you discover we simultaneously seek to learn from others while craving to outperform them. Today, we learn and share through reviews and rankings. We perform better based on this intel and really shine when we know we’re being reviewed and ranked. That simple idea is completely reshaping businesses, service providers and veterinary clinics. If you’re not building and demonstrating trust on these new platforms, you’re being left behind.

Today’s typical consumer makes purchases based on Amazon reviews and blog descriptions, and selects a hotel tagged on Instagram and ranked highly on TripAdvisor. We read news stories chosen by algorithms because our friends shared them. We get into cars with strangers and stay in private apartments because hundreds of people ticked five stars. The new language and currency of value and trustworthiness is being defined by the 3 billion online earthlings hardwired to collaborate and compete.

Which brings us back to that friendly tow truck driver and an invaluable lesson I learned for my veterinary practice.

Active Advocacy

As we neared the auto repair shop, my dead-car-transport-jockey changed the conversation. “I hope you never have to call me again,” he said. “Being broken down by the highway can be frightening and dangerous. You can help others in your situation by letting them know about me so they won’t be as worried if they’re in your situation. Here’s a card with my information and how you can rank us on Google. It only takes a minute, and I’d really appreciate it.”

Not only did I tip the driver generously, I promptly gave him a five-star review. This guy was brilliant.

The act of asking for an online review demonstrates the shift from passive to active consumer advocacy. In the past, we imagined our most satisfied “clinic advocates” strolling through their lives joyously proclaiming the greatness of their veterinarian. That was never true. At best, these superclients passively advocated for us whenever the subject of veterinary care came up. Sure, if neighbor Nellie complained or bragged about her vet, your advocate likely spoke up in your favor. The problem was her voice didn’t carry beyond the coffee table.

We’ve now entered an era of active advocacy. If you receive a glowing review, it can be seen infinitely by innumerable pet owners. No longer are superclients limited by the people they encounter; they can touch everyone with internet access and interest. It begins by asking for help.

What You Can Do

Here are six tips to help you promote active advocacy, create value and boost your credibility in the new trust economy.

  • Ask for help, not reviews. Pet owners naturally want to help other pet lovers. Leverage this instinct by changing how you ask for online reviews. If you have a client whose pet lost weight, beat a dermatological problem, is fighting cancer or is simply doing better, try this tactic: “Mrs. Smith, I know how frustrating ear infections can be. You’ve done a fantastic job with Buster and followed our instructions perfectly. I’d really appreciate you sharing your experiences with other dog owners going through a similar situation. Here’s a card on how to leave a short note on Google.”
  • Create a snowball effect. The more success stories and positive reviews someone sees, the more likely she is to share her experiences. “Like begets like” rings true in both nature and online. Involve pet owners in a shared community and encourage them to aid others. Remember, we’re hardwired to collaborate. All you need to do is activate those pathways and watch the snowball of encouraging stories roll and grow.
  • Make reviewing easy. Companies profiting the most in the trust economy are those utilizing technology to connect with their clients. Services such as Demandforce can send your clients a follow-up email or text message containing a simple click to submit a review or leave feedback. Printed business cards with easy instructions on leaving an online review also work well. The key is to ask and then make the task effortless to complete.
  • Become a virtual extrovert. The truth is many veterinarians and staff are introverts. What you lack in eye contact and verbal persuasion can be made up in how well you communicate electronically. If you’re uncomfortable asking for a review, draft a confident email request. Participate in text conversations, social media posts or blogs. The digital footprints you leave help build credibility far beyond the range of your voice. Blog boldly.
  • Boost your Google ranking. Google incorporates your clinic’s rankings in its search algorithm. Your page rank and map placement are heavily influenced by online reviews, especially Google reviews. This gives added incentive to ask each client for help.
  • Learn a new “language.” In the pre-social media era, I grew my clinics through people talking to one another. The next generation of veterinarians will succeed based on five-star reviews posts. This is a profound shift that requires immediate and strategic attention. A medical professional is only as good as her reputation. That reputation is now being built on digital trust.

Damage Control

What about bad reviews? How should a veterinary clinic respond? Here are five steps to positively address negative online comments.

  • The best defense is a good offense. Bad reviews will happen. It’s inevitable. To mitigate the impact of one-star reviews, pile on the five stars. I encourage you to ask for an online review at nearly every visit. Google algorithms are built on math. Make sure the numbers add up in your favor by actively asking for a five-star review.
  • Defense matters. Set up free Google alerts, pay an online reputation-management service such as BrandYourself or Reputation.com, or hire a dedicated social media assistance provider. Whatever you do, make sure you have some mechanism to monitor the permanent internet conversation about your clinic. It’s happening regardless of whether you realize it or not. On the upside, identifying and thanking clients for positive posts is a proven practice builder. #KnowItToGrowIt
  • Respond immediately. The faster you respond to negative online comments, the better. Don’t delete them unless you’re considering legal action or the post contains sensitive or offensive content. If you delete the review, the story pivots to, “What are you hiding?” instead of you addressing the issue openly and honestly.
  • Stay positive and shift the conversation offline. While pointing out errors and typos in a negative online review is tempting, the response bores onlookers and devolves into a tit-for-tat playground skirmish. Instead, try posting: “We’re sorry you had a bad experience with us. We’d like to learn more about your issue so we can make things right and improve our level of care. Would you please call Susy at this number immediately?” That shows viewers that you acknowledge a problem and want to correct it. Nobody’s perfect, so don’t pretend to be. If the person continues on a tirade, she most likely will be viewed as a looney with a personal agenda.
  • Learn from bad reviews. I teach my staff members that complaints are “concealed corrective comments.” Inside nearly every negative review is a lesson to be learned. Ignore the emotions and focus on the underlying problems.

It’s Here, So Deal With It

Our developing digital life isn’t a fad. As virtual and augmented reality matures and as always-present, instant internet access arrives, the trust economy will flourish in ways we can’t fathom. The winners and losers of this latest currency are being defined today and will impact generations of pet owners and veterinarians.

I’ll leave you with a final warning: As our digital identity becomes established, reinventing yourself or escaping a bad reputation will become harder. The real reason you left your last job is only a LinkedIn connection or two away. Potential clients will ask the internet if they should trust you with their pet’s care.

If you cultivate an excellent online reputation, you can go anywhere. As virtual medical care becomes a reality and spreads globally, your online reputation and digital footprints will largely determine how successful you will be as a veterinary health care provider.

Now that the trust economy is here, it’s up to us to optimize it for our profession and patients. I trust we’ll do the right thing. Invest wisely today to reap rewards tomorrow.

Dr. Ernie Ward is a speaker, entrepreneur and owner of the veterinary consulting firm E3 Management. He serves on the Today’s Veterinary Business editorial advisory board.