8 ways to cement your reputation in business

For many small businesses, reputation is everything. Literally. That's because it's the one area they feel they can beat out even the biggest business without spending a dime.

Reputation - how customers, competitors, suppliers, employees and the community at large perceive you - is something your business earns over time. You can't really buy it (although many big businesses try), and it goes hand-in-hand with trust and confidence in the product or service you provide.

Most small-business owners feel that reputation is something they have to build on their own. In a recent survey of 2,000 business owners polled by the Web site BizBuySell, three out of four doubted the effectiveness of hiring consultants to improve business reputation, preferring instead to do their own marketing without external help.

Business owners also agree that building reputation takes time. It's a slow process that takes months or years and often involves winning customers over one by one.

Key elements of reputation building that business owners most frequently cite include the human qualities of integrity, honesty, reliability and exceeding expectations.

In addition, building trust and a good reputation require that the business deliver good-quality products and services along with good value.

Here are eight things your business can do to build a reputation:

•  Deliver some R&R - as in responsiveness and reliability. The key to developing a reputation as being responsive is to be a stickler for communication and to resolve complaints quickly. If there's a mistake or delay, own up to it and make every effort to fix the problem quickly. An apology helps, too. A complaining customer can become your biggest supporter if the complaint is resolved quickly and effectively. At the same time, your business will gain a reputation as being reliable and dependable.

•  Build bottom-up credibility. You have to start by delivering on what you promise. The best approach is first to under-promise, then over-deliver. A sure-fire reputation buster is to make promises - in your advertising, in person, by your employees, in the hours you post but don't keep - that aren't met. Then - and only then - should you tout professional or business memberships such as the Better Business Bureau. Labels are meaningless with nothing behind them.

•  Offer exceptional value. People define value differently, so this can involve many different things. You may, for example, offer free service or product support for a period of time, or offer discounts and special perks to loyal customers. Sometimes, it's a matter of providing something unexpected, such as a giveaway or free sample. And paying attention to details - making sure a product is spotless on delivery, for example - scores big value and reputation points.

•  Protect customer privacy. Guard sensitive information (credit-card slips, for example) and honor permission-based mailing and e-mail lists. Don't annoy prospects with excessively frequent mailings or marketing materials.

•  Keep up with tech. A business that uses antiquated technology will have a reputation as being, well, antiquated. Get computers that work, high-speed Internet connections, e-mail that understands HTML (so you can view colors, graphics, etc). Voice-mail systems are perfectly fine, but make sure yours works properly, is easy to navigate and doesn't make you look bush league.

•  Communicate effectively. Keep letters, e-mails and voice mails short and to the point. Use correct spelling and always leave contact information, even if you think the recipient has it. Make sure your company information - full name, address, phone, fax, Web site URL, toll-free number, hours and other vital information - is displayed in prominent locations.

•  Build a professional Web site. A clean, up-to-date, professional-looking Web site is absolutely vital today, regardless of the type or size of business you have. It doesn't need to be big or fancy, but it does need to be accurate and up to date.

•  Do community service. A little selfless generosity toward local organizations or your community goes a long way toward helping building trust and a positive reputation.

Daniel Kehrer is editor of Business.com and Work.com. Reach him at editor@business.com.

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