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Manage Brand Fanatics and Brand Detractors

Every business owner wants to cultivate a loyal customer base and avoid toxic relationships. But B.J. Bueno, founder and managing partner of The Cult Branding Company in Orlando, says doing so is not easy; it requires disciplined brand management and employee buy-in. He spoke recently with Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein about strategies that entrepreneurs with limited resources can employ to cope with brand fanatics and brand detractors. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Karen E. Klein: What causes customers either to fall in love with a small business or to hate it?

B.J. Bueno: Feeling is the beginning. A transactional customer looks for cheaper prices. He is thinking when he is shopping—as opposed to being guided by his feelings. If your product is a commodity, for your customers, it will be like going to the supermarket.

Most small businesses can't afford to compete on the commodity level. They want customers who become brand believers. Now you're in a different realm, where the consumer feels first and thinks later.

Angry customers can become aggressive about spreading bad faith through word of mouth or online. What triggers someone to act out a vendetta against a small business?

It's certainly true that bad word of mouth tends to catch fire faster than good word of mouth. There's a human explanation: When we lose, it feels bad. But when we win, we get double the good feelings.

People who have lost something, like maybe an argument with you, feel good when they talk bad about you. It has been shown that people get a sense of esteem and a lot of social capital when they're the first to pass on information, and that's the trouble. People who have had a negative experience will do everything in their power to hijack your brand.

Are brand detractors inevitable?

A lot of the best brands have created quite a few enemies. But it depends on your business. Brand haters might be a necessary tension for you to stay growing; they're your critics.

When I sample customers for large corporations, and 1 million agree that the business is horrible, I know that something else is going on. Somehow, somewhere along the line, someone stopped listening to the customers and started to regard them as not very important. Usually, the CEO is there to rev the engine, make some money, and get out.

What can a business owner do about a brand detractor?

Understand that with some people, you're not going to win. The minute you get adversarial, it gets worse. On the other hand, it can be very empowering to show the public who you really are and invite a dialogue. It all depends on the business ownership. You can't send a grumpy ogre out there to calm things down.

What about negative associations that arise on the Internet?

It used to be that the cream would rise to the top. But on the Internet, it's a battling of opinions based on volume. You can spend time coming up with a reasonable argument or apology, and no matter how good it is, you'll get drowned out.

Sometimes there's a practical way to solve this, like posting a simple FAQ on your Web site refuting some negative beliefs about your company. Once something is labeled as rumor, it's less likely to propagate. That doesn't mean the bad feeling will go away, but it can be neutralized.

How would an entrepreneur go about preventing negative feedback?

Realize that naturally, in business and in life, some people are just not going to like you, no matter what you do or how nice you make your product. You can't listen to all those people, or you'd go out of business.

But you can listen to customers who have hard comments for you. Even if you feel your customer's off base, or has been rude or misunderstood something, listen to him. Give your employees the ability to comp customers who are upset.

And then teach. This is so important for small business owners. The person who's working your front counter becomes your entire business. Once a month, get in front of your associates and talk to them about how the business should be run.

Let's talk about the flip side. What makes someone a brand booster?

The biggest drivers I've seen are when the brand becomes a deep experience or a memory, and customers tell stories about the brand. The brand actually comes to define them.

How can that be encouraged?

Find ways to create an anticipated reward for your customers. Commit to doing something extra, and let your customers in on the planning. Make people anticipate your new product, or your new shipment, or the big sale you have coming up.

Don't have a sale every weekend, like the big retailers do. Create something that happens once or twice a year and make it fun. Update your customers on what's happening with the event, and then make it better every year so your customers can get in on it and they start rooting for you.

The other thing is to go out of your way to do more than is expected. Let's take an accountant. There are loads of resources that accountants can gather and pass on to small business or individual clients. It shows they want you to succeed, it creates a relationship. Tell people to call you any time they need to discuss something. Invest something in the relationship and make it your goal to keep that customer for life.

Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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