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Noah Tepperman of Tepperman's family-owned chain of Southern Ontario furniture stores.


You might not expect a family-owned furniture store to be deep in the social media game, but Noah Tepperman knows that that's where his customers are. After all, that's where most everybody is these days.

However, the Internet is a big place, and engaging with clients throughout that thicket requires some versatility.

For all of the focus on Facebook and Twitter as places where consumers gather to share, and form, opinions, business owners also have to wrangle with an older, simpler kind of social media: Web forums. And recently, Mr. Tepperman, a third-generation partner at Tepperman's, a family-owned chain of Southern Ontario furniture stores, was faced with just such an issue.

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Chatter about customer-service glitches was slowly accumulating on a forum called []/note>, which is dedicated to Canadian small-business reviews. The nature of online reviews is that customers are far more likely to post when they're upset than when they're satisfied. On this forum, complaints were arriving at a rate of about one a month – a tiny proportion of Tepperman's customer base, but, over the course of a year, enough to create a bad first impression.

"It's one of the No. 1 challenges I find myself faced with," Mr. Tepperman says. "I'm supremely confident that the number of happy customers dwarf[s] the number of unhappy customers."

So Mr. Tepperman took to the forum and engaged with his customers, trying to set things right where need be, and standing his ground in other cases. (In one case, he gently but frankly explained that he couldn't replace a dryer on which a customer had noticed a dent – after the customer had left it in a renovation zone for three months.)

It wasn't easy – and his travails are on the record for everyone to see – but Mr. Tepperman found a payoff: One former complainant, unbidden, came back to praise his outreach and update her complaint with a happy ending. Now, the top result on the site under his firm's name is effusive praise for his responsiveness.

Forums pose a unique challenge to business owners. Twitter and Facebook might see a higher volume of commentary cross their wires, but it tends to be either ephemeral or obscured from full public view.

In contrast, forums, and their cousins, consumer-review sites, sit on the open Internet, in full view of search engines. This means that consumers who run a curious Google search on your business's name are quite likely to run across conversations that took place in wide-open Web forums.

Know the haunts

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It pays to know your way around your industry's corner of the Internet. Consumers often gather at industry- and region-specific forums, some run by enthusiasts, others as businesses themselves. These are all over the map and can be very specific in their focus.

For instance, Internet connection junkies congregate at dslreports[]/note>, Toronto's condo-curious at []/note>; and Algonquin Park outdoorsmen at Algonquin Adventures []/note>.

Keep an eye open for similar klatches in your field, and watch how the conversation evolves. Maintaining a Google alert open for your business name will let you know if commentary pops up where you're not expecting it.

Create a presence, engage delicately

Unlike social networks, you'll have to register an account and create a new identity every time you join a new forum. Forum members typically use pseudonyms, but business owners should use their real names (or at least their company's real name). The show of transparency is especially meaningful in an anonymous context.

More than review and complaint sites, forums tend to be insular places where conversations unroll over the course of weeks, and members are familiar with each other. Frequently, seniority matters, and newcomers are viewed with some leeriness.

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Even though you might be the subject of discussion, don't make a grand entrance: Remember that you're taking part in an ongoing conversation, not stepping in to stage a Q&A.

Better still, if you've found a forum that discusses your area of business, and you think you might enjoy contributing, consider establishing a presence before the discussion turns to you. A contributor who's an established part of a community will be better-received than one who rushes in to fight a fire.

Take it offline

Even online, discretion is the better part of valour. Resist the temptation to mount a spirited defence, or to take on all comers, lest you become embroiled in an ongoing (and inevitably ugly) online argument.

When posting online, Mr. Tepperman makes a habit of giving out his direct phone number, asking clients to contact him directly to work through concerns. (In fact, this is how I reached him myself.)

While this kind of transparency has risks, it pays itself back in good optics: Customers see that you're willing to put yourself on the line for them, without having to look at anyone's dirty laundry.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Other stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Report on Small Business website .

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