Looking Good When the Rest of the Industry Looks Bad

Don't be like Target or General Motors -- avoid reputation blunders by taking these four steps.

learn more about Cris Burnam

By Cris Burnam


Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Reputation has long been important in business. If you lose your customers' trust, it won't be long before you lose your business, too.

Target ran into just such a trust issue back in 2013 with its massive data breach, affecting an estimated 110 million customers. General Motors lost its customers' confidence in early 2014 after ignition switch problems forced a series of vehicle recalls. And, in May 2016, Mitsubishi Motors' Tetsuro Aikawa resigned from his position as president after the company admitted to rigging fuel-efficiency tests for years.

These mistakes have had lasting consequences on each company's image and its pocketbook. But what if those mistakes ran industrywide?

So much of business is about taking care of customers. If you do a good job, they'll reward you by beating a path to your door. But when your image is tarnished, those crowds scatter. As a startup, you're well advised to navigate cautiously around your industry's public image. For better or worse, you will be tied to it, and you must invest enough in the optics of your business to become the exception to the rule.

Related: 3 Steps to Repair a Damaged Reputation

Conquering a spotty industry rep

Two industries that have long suffered from the bite of a bad rap are manufactured housing (a.k.a. trailer parks) and payday loans. They're plagued with negative images when, in reality, they provide valuable services that clients can't get anywhere else.

Years ago, we wanted to build a mobile home park, but everyone said, "Oh my God, what a nest of crime!" To determine whether that was true, we studied 100 residences in a middle-class neighborhood and compared them to 100 mobile homes in three parks. We went to the police station and asked for police reports for a particular time period in both areas, and found there were far more police reports generated from the single-family homes.

Unfortunately, you won't always have relevant statistics to rectify your own industry's unfair image, so you have to be energetic and creative to find the correct comparison showing a balanced perception to the public. Here are four steps to help you get started:

1. Participate in trade groups.

Though instinct may tell you to distance yourself, now's the time to present a united front. Band together with like-minded entrepreneurs in your industry, then work together to create best practices for your trade group.

Look for ways to develop consistent levels of ethics and services, so customers know what to expect going forward. Do outreach on why your industry is important and what niche it serves in the lives of your customers.

2. Share best practices with competitors.

Half of all business is basic: Take care of the customer. Businesses with bad raps often earned them because they failed to focus on the basics. Although the following advice sounds counterintuitive, share what you learn with the competition.

When best practices are deployed, the whole industry benefits. This allows you to focus on your business, rather than deal with the aftermath of someone else's.

Related: How to Clean Up an Online Reputation

3. Turn to other industries.

Look at what other industries have done when you're struggling with a poor public image. Ask yourself, "What problems was that particular industry facing?" Then, evaluate your own to determine whether it applies to you. If their response strategy worked, steal it! Then adapt it to fit your industry.

Look at the fast-food industry, for example, which is consistently under fire for causing health problems such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes and even infertility.

In response, companies have added healthier options to the menu. (McDonald's announced it was testing a kale breakfast bowl on select menus last year.) Other companies such as Chipotle have reframed the language around the industry, calling itself "fast casual" and offering higher-quality foods at a small price bump.

4. Grin and bear it.

There may come a time when you'll just have to accept bad news. We had a building flood once, and there was nothing I as a business owner could have done to change the situation. So, do the best you can to help people around you; sometimes that's all you can do.

Related: The Steps Businesses Can Take to Avoid a Serious Social-Media Blunder (Infographic)

Managing your reputation is a process that never ends. Listen to what people are saying, and correct what you can. Work with others to develop best practices for your trade as a whole, which will benefit your entire industry.

Otherwise, the chances are good you'll be dealing with the same problems for a long time.

Cris Burnam

President of StorageMart

Cris Burnam has been working in the self-storage industry since 1987. He has served as president of StorageMart since founding the company with his brother, Mike Burnam, in 1999. Burnam grew StorageMart from a single self-storage facility into the world’s largest privately owned self-storage company with 149 locations across the U.S. and Canada. Burnam was named a 2014 EY Entrepreneur of the Year in the Services and Real Estate category (Central Midwest region) -- one of the highest honors an American entrepreneur can receive.

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