Build Corporate Trust by Trusting the Internet

The great thing about the Internet is that the voice of a single person can carry as much weight as even the largest companies. The scary thing about the Internet, for many companies, is that the voice of a single person could potentially damage the reputation of even the largest companies.

Wherever there is a new fear, someone is going to try to make a buck off of it. The fear of a small number of disgruntled customers causing significant financial damage to a company’s business has spawned the growth of “reputation managers.” I even saw a link describing “reputation insurance,” which I felt compelled to click on just to see if it was a joke.

But companies should resist the temptation to trust their reputation to this new breed of
fear-mongering. If we are to encourage people to trust companies online, companies have to trust that the Internet community will be, on the whole, fair to them, as well.

Reputation management can easily backfire. The Financial Times reported a case of 50 employees of one of Britain’s leading PR firms making Wikipedia edits under faked identities to boost the reputation of one of their clients. I wonder what that did to the reputation of the PR firm. Representatives from PRSA inform me that it is against its Code of Ethics to omit disclosing a relationship to a client. I’m glad to hear it. Incidents such as these undermine trust in Wikipedia and other Internet communities and thus make it harder for reputable companies.

Yes, there is the occasional Internet crazy who insults companies unfairly. What should you do?

The Rise of the Netizen

The Internet community is getting better at putting the occasional unfair complaint or angry “flamer” into proper perspective. I often use TripAdvisor to pick hotels. In the reviews there, even for the best places, there is always the occasional negative review, and I’ve learned to not be swayed by the occasional negative if the general consensus is positive. The Internet community is learning this lesson rapidly.

If it only happens occasionally, then treat it as an opportunity to show how good you can be at customer service and responsiveness. People will grant that the company has a right to respond publicly and tell its side of the story. Treat the commenter with respect, even if they are not respectful.

If they may have a legitimate complaint, take steps to address it, preferably by the person closest to the situation (a complaint about a hotel clerk is better responded to by the clerk themselves than by the hotel manager or a PR firm). Worst are the officious responses by third parties designed to deflect the customer (e.g., “You signed something that said we are not responsible.”).

Remember that others are watching, and if you treat one customer badly everyone else will think, “That’ll happen to me.” On the Web, many products and services, like it or not, are commodities and people will especially value companies that they can be sure will treat them well even if there’s a problem.

If it happens continually you have to re-examine your policies. Consumer revolts like the recent reaction to Bank of America’s planned debit card charges, aren’t just a lone crazy assassinating a company’s reputation. The particular charge itself wasn’t that onerous; they deserved their reputation for gouging, and that was just the last straw.

Trust the Internet, Trust the Customer

As a computer science researcher who is asked to help companies understand and thrive in the new economy, I’m often asked “How can I get the trust of my customers in the new economy?” A good question, one I’m happy to address.

Not a few minutes later, though, they show me sites with online upsells, charges tacked on at checkout, subscription boxes checked by default, etc. “Hey, we’re always trying to think of how we can extract more value from our customers.” I have to remind them, “Remember a few minutes ago when you asked how you could get the trust of your customers? Would you trust someone who was always looking for any opportunity to ‘extract’ from you?”

Reputation managers and insurance provide a false sense of security. The real security for your reputation is to treat your customers with respect and provide good products and services. The Internet community will recognize it and give you business. We can’t trust you unless you trust us.

Henry Lieberman is the principal research scientist at the MIT Media Lab.

About the author

Henry Lieberman


  • I have a different take on this: 
    Business’s How to fight back at Twitter, Yelp and other threats from Forums

  • Mr. Scott,

    Your choice of words, “fight back” and “threat” says it all. Your link is full of anger.  Even if a commenter every now and then “deserves it”, even if they get their friends to join them in their complaint, what the vast majority of your customer base will sense from you is that angry, combative, adversarial attitude. That’ll be worse for your business than any particular complaint. That’s all I’m saying.

    Love and peace,


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