Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 32 seconds

At one time, the Internet must have seemed like a paradise for a small firm, with seemingly limitless opportunities to spread the word on the firm's brand and to find new clients. Today, technology easily supports these advantages, but not every aspect is entirely positive. Clients - both the happy and unhappy ones - now enjoy unprecedented power to voice their opinion about your practice. According to a recent survey by Nielsen Ratings, 70 percent of people trust the opinions of strangers online, and the mushrooming of websites where consumers can freely comment on businesses has helped create a "Reputation Economy" where a few bad reviews can hurt a firm's bottom line.
Like it or not, you probably have an online reputation; it's now up to you to monitor and manage it. As Warren Buffett said, "It takes 20 years to build a reputation and only five minutes to ruin it."

Everybody's Got an Opinion
Several well-known websites such as Yelp, Google Places, CitySearch, InsiderPages, Judy's Book, Angie's List and Kudzu offer the chance to post anonymous opinions and feedback about businesses, including accounting and tax-prep practices of all sizes. Often, these sites drill down to specific towns and cities, meaning that the local clients your practice wants to win, and even retain, may be reading these reviews. It also doesn't matter whether you're in a one-stoplight town or an ultra-urban U.S. city. If the Internet is available, then reviews about your business may be found online.

A practice's best first step is to monitor its online reputation and find out what people are saying about your firm. There are tools like Google Alerts and Yahoo Alerts to monitor search engines; Technorati and Google Blog Search to monitor blogs; and Twitter Search to monitor what others are saying about your firm, people in your firm and your competitors.

Proactive Management

The best medicine for managing your online reputation is prevention. That's right; it's much better to proactively deal with unhappy clients directly, and mutually resolve their concerns, rather than allow complaints and hard feelings to fester. Even if the client is halfway out the door and not worth retaining, it is much better to train and equip your team to proactively work through difficult situations rather than let the issue go and read the scathing review of your firm months later. By then, it's too late to resolve.

For negative reviews that you find, try to rectify the issue. Even if you feel a complaint was unwarranted, appeasing vocal customers may be worth its weight in new business because they may amend their review. The process would be to research their perspective, write down your thoughts so you can avoid becoming emotional, contact them by phone, empathize with their situation and seek to reach some common ground.

Writers of negative reviews aren't the only ones who can make new media work for them - you actually can influence a negative situation. For example, Yelp allows you to respond directly to clients or others who have had a bad experience. When you respond, you might be talking as much to potential clients who will read the bad review as to the client who originally posted the negative review. My suggestion is to take the dialogue offline, if possible.

If you find positive reviews about your firm, you may want to consider asking the person to post the same review in another online review website so that more prospects can see what they've written. Encouraging positive reviews (and reposting positive reviews into other review websites) can water down negative opinions and build interest in your product or service.

In the event that you find this process too cumbersome, there are some fee-based services that make posting reviews online easier. One that comes to mind is

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "We all live in a televised fishbowl." While Mrs. Roosevelt had no idea how the Internet and technology would impact our lives, her sentiment still rings true today. Reputation is everything to a thriving firm - and once your reputation is sacrificed, the fish in the bowl will indeed swim upstream. If you receive an online negative review or similar kind of comment, take a deep breath and figure out how to turn a negative into a positive. In the long term, you'll save your reputation.

Hugh Duffy MBA

Hugh Duffy is co-founder and chief marketing officer for Build Your Firm, a leading practice development firm dedicated to the accounting industry.  Based in Madison, Conn., Build Your Firm works with small accounting firms providing accounting marketing, practice management and Web site development services

Prior to co-founding Build Your Firm in 2003, Hugh was a Vice President of Internet Marketing for Business & Legal Reports (BLR), a business-to-business publisher for small and medium sized businesses.  Prior to BLR, Hugh was a Director with a publicly traded global internet media company, 24/7 Real Media responsible for Business Development and Strategic Partnerships.  The foundation of Hugh’s marketing background is fourteen years of consumer packaged goods marketing with Schick, Nabisco, Clorox and Coca-Cola. 

Hugh has 25 years of marketing experience, an MBA degree in marketing from the University of Rochester and a B.S. in finance from the University of Maryland.  While at Maryland, Hugh was on a golf scholarship and his coach was Fred Funk, PGA Tour player.  Today, Hugh’s golf game suffers and he is content watching his two kids play college lacrosse.

Last modified on Sunday, 02 June 2013
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