Small biz owners: do you speak for your brand?

If you spend much time on internet forums for musical gear, you will have seen (or been) the owners of small companies posting answers to questions or challenges about their products… and you will have seen some of those conversations go very badly.

The fact is, forums can be brutal places, full of keyboard warriors and idle hotheads.  But you cannot just ignore those venues, because they are a fast-moving word-of-mouth network about your goods and services, and if they spread bad words then your business could go down in flames without you even knowing what happened!  So you have to participate—and if you are not so great at communicating via the internet, then you really ought to get somebody who is good at it to do the talking for you.

I can name so many examples.  Ken Smith is a classic—he has been banned from public forums several times due to his foul, mean-spirited attitude; and I personally will not ever buy anything from him.  You may argue that a consumer is buying the goods, not the attitude of the company owner—but many consumers, like me, don’t want to send our money to a person who has insulted or attacked them, no matter how good the products may be.

A contrary example is Genz Benz: their public communication with customers is so good that I very much want to buy Genz Benz products—without even trying them!

A bass builder I’ll call “D.C.” is another negative case: he started out selling fake Fender guitars made from cheap Chinese parts with a Fender decal on the headstock.  Then people on forums called him on it, and he got defensive and outraged.  D.C. went ballistic, calling everyone on the forum idiots and other names, and fighting viciously with anyone who pointed out his obvious shenanigans.  Then later he stopped putting the fake Fender decals on, and posted “see?  I don’t use fake Fender decals”.  And later he started using a less obvious supplier of Chinese parts, and said “see?  Everyone who said I use those other parts is a moron and a liar”.  Obviously this is not a person I would do business with, and many people that saw how he behaved feel the same way.  The sad thing is, if he had been honest and civil from the start, he would be in a much better position now, because there’s nothing inherently wrong with the quality of the products he makes.

In most of these cases, the hostile brand owner thinks they have the right to talk that way.  Ken Smith says “I’m a New Yorker, this is how we talk”.  But the New Yorkers I know personally are just brusque or direct in their speech—not actually mean or nasty.  Another guy I dealt with said it was because he was Irish, he couldn’t help flying off the handle.  D.C. said “I was being attacked on the forum, wouldn’t you want to defend your livelihood too?”  But the thing is that if what people are saying is true, then you have no right to get upset; and if what they are saying is false, then you should be able to calmly and maturely demonstrate evidence that supports the real truth.

So you and me, let’s take stock for a minute.  Are you a hothead sometimes?  Do you flare up when people say things you don’t like?  Do you find yourself arguing on the internet more often than not?  Does it seem like everyone there is dumping on you for no reason?  When somebody says something bad about one of your products, do you immediately think “there goes another keyboard warrior big-mouth who doesn’t know what he’s talking about“?  When somebody questions your attitude, do you get upset thinking they are saying something bad about your products?

All of those are warning signs that you might not be the best person to represent your company on the internet.  I know, money is tight, you can’t afford a PR person to just sit around happy-talking with everyone on the net; but surely there is somebody in your company or in your family who has a level head and a cool manner?  Stop thinking about how much it will cost you to have them do the talking, and start thinking about about how much it already costs you in lost sales every time you open your mouth defensively!  Remember, you may be responding to only one or two people directly, but hundreds, maybe even many thousands of people will read what you just said!  And they are all potential customers.

Another, much more innocent angle is older people who are not comfortable with communicating via email and the web.  Many people who have the experience, the inclination, and the capital to start a small business are people who already had a long career (perhaps as an engineer, or a builder for a larger company)—and that means many of those people are older.  A lot of older people just aren’t familiar with the current norms of internet communication, and this can lead to some terrible misunderstandings and even fights.  There’s an amplifier brand trying to get off the ground, and they’re having a lot of trouble right now because the owner has made some very clumsy communication gaffes; and he doesn’t know how to stop the cycle and get out of that hole.  He’s doing the best he can, with good intentions, but everything he says seems to make matters worse, and it’s just not working for him.

If that sounds familiar to you at all, take stock and consider whether there is anybody else in your company or family who might know how to handle these things better.

Even if you are the one person who knows all the answers about your products; even if you are the one person able/authorized to make commitments about service, prices, or other obligations; even if it’s just you, nobody else in the company—if bickering on the internet has been a problem for you, then take this seriously: you will really benefit, and survive longer, if you delegate the communications to somebody else.  They can relay important questions to you, and then they can take your answer and deliver it to the person with the question or problem.  Let somebody else do the talking.

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  1. nk said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 7:24 am

    Another well-written, thought-provoking post. Thanks.

    I wonder if there might be an exception to the rule: Sterling Ball. The few times I have visited the EB forum, I’ve been taken aghast by how defensive and aggressive he can be in his forums against EBMM instrument owners. But they seem to like his bull-headed frankness over there. Any thoughts on him? My guess is that a personality like his wouldn’t go very far on Talkbass, but it works there. So maybe the thought that small business proprietors ought to exercise some basic civil decorum is more context-sensitive than it initially seems.

  2. Cyrus said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 8:43 am

    That’s a very good point. The same is true of Ken Smith and Jeff Berlin (with his product being his teaching method). Many people think those two are obnoxious beyond belief, but there is a small-yet-notable population that thinks those guys are GREAT. I guess my response would be that if a brand owner is fine with having a small, devoted customer base as opposed to a large, more generalized customer base, then that’s a decision they can make—but I would advise them to make it consciously. In the particular case of Sterling Ball, I’d say he’s lucky that he inherited a brand that already had such wide public appeal, so the public image of the brand overall is much less tied to his personality.

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