Sunday, June 1, 2014

Why Monitoring Your Online Presence Matters

I had a really strange experience about two weeks ago with a local restaurant, its owner, and the venue's digital presence. Not to mention its phone.

My region of the NJ Association of Women Business Owners had a dinner program booked at this restaurant for a Wednesday evening. The reservation was made a couple of months ago. A few days prior to the event, I called the owner's cell phone (she had given a couple of us that number) to give her a head count and to confirm. It went directly to voice mail, which was full and not accepting any messages.

Being a person of the modern age I decided to check the website for the restaurant's phone number. The website was gone, poof, down, not found, 86'd (to use a restaurant term). Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice in Wonderland would muse. I called information for the phone number and dialed; no answer. By then I was assuming something bad was going down.

I did a bit more online digging and came upon the restaurant's Yelp page. The header proclaimed that several Yelpers reported the location was closed. Suspicion confirmed.

It was further confirmed when I went to the restaurant's Facebook page and saw it had not been updated for over a year. What would you think?

Another NJAWBO member also tried calling the two phone numbers and also got no answer. I shared my digital detective work with her and we agreed it was unfortunate that the restaurant had closed, and that we were not told. We canceled the meeting. I decided the next day to call the restaurant again because it seemed so weird and guess what? An employee answered and said the owner would be back in about an hour. What?! Further confusion prevailed.

Imagine our surprise when the owner called my friend a little while later to get the details for our dinner! Huh?!
I eventually spoke with the owner and explained to her that after a full day (or more) of not getting any answers, of a voice mailbox that was not accepting messages, an absent website and a Yelp obituary (not to mention the abandoned Facebook page) that we thought the restaurant was closed. It is not. The owner explained that it had been closed for a couple of days for renovations but not permanently closed. She did have some lame excuse about not answering the phone because of the construction (I didn't get that connection).

When I told her about the absent website she said something about it being updated. I explained to her that you don't take down a perfectly serviceable website just because you are updating your menu! Wait until you have the new site ready before you take down the existing one.

She had no clue about the Yelp post -- nor about the super-negative reviews that are posted there. So on top of the poor decision to take down the website prematurely, she was not monitoring what customers have been saying about her restaurant and there were definitely some comments that could have used some crisis communications responses.

When the issue of the Facebook page came up, she told me the prior owner's daughter had put up the page and would not make her an admin on the page, so it was in a state of suspended animation. She can't even take it down. I don't know why someone would abandon a page and then not give the new owner the permissions necessary to manage it (although I doubt there would have been much in the way of management there). But this was another nail in the reputation coffin.

She did assure me they are working on new menu items, they are open for business, and encouraged me to come by soon to check out the new dishes. I felt like telling her she needs me to check out her online reputation and help her clean that up!

What went wrong:
  1. The public had misinformation about the restaurant's status due to errors of omission (no signage or outgoing voice mail message stating the reason for the temporary closure). Some simple old-school communication tactics would have served the place well. A sign in the window and an outgoing telephone message explaining "we're closed for several days for renovations" would have saved them our business and would have avoided totally incorrect information on Yelp. That Yelp obit is now gone.
  2. The website person took down the existing website for no good reason, feeding speculation about the restaurant's closure when coupled with the "no one's home to answer the phone" situation. As noted above, don't take down the old website before launching the new one. If you do, put up a simple "new site under construction" page for the time being so people don't make wrong assumptions. By the way, there is now a non-functioning Wordpress site up in its place with some pretty pictures, no information or copy, and lots of contact boxes.
  3. The owner had no idea there was any conversation on social media about the restaurant and therefore was not responding to negative comments/reviews or correcting the misinformation out there about its demise. If you own a business, check the search engines for your name and see what's going on out in the cyber wilderness before reputation disaster strikes.
  4. No one had been attending to the Facebook page for so long, it gave the appearance of being abandoned (the page and the location). Either keep the pages updated or take them down; otherwise it gives the impression that no one's home. Their page is still abandoned. By the way -- please make sure you engage with your audience on your social pages. If people are allowed to comment there and they post something that warrants your attention, talk to them. Social dialogue is a great way to build audience and enhance your digital cred. 
These individual problems all added up to a very big one for this business and all of them were avoidable, had anyone been paying attention to what was happening online. Mind your social accounts, keep your website up and functioning, and check on what people are saying about you out there. Don't let this happen to you!