No one wants to be on the receiving end of bad word of mouth, but it’s best to be prepared. Here’s how to handle it when things go wrong.

This article was last updated on February 3, 2022.

Jay Thompson is a former brokerage owner who spent over six years working for Zillow Group. He’s also the co-founder of AgentLoop. He “selectively retired” in August 2018 but can’t seem to leave the real estate industry behind. He publishes a weekly column for Inman .

The name of the game in real estate is reputation, which impacts referrals and the brand authority you hold in your market. As a relationship-based business, perception frequently becomes reality.

Some guy named Benjamin Franklin once remarked, “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” He also said, “Glass, china, and reputation are easily cracked, and never well mended.”

Ben was pretty smart. Warren Buffett is pretty smart too, and he said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

The internet has provided anyone with a keyboard and WiFi connection the ability to publish their thoughts to the world. That’s an incredibly powerful tool. And to drop yet another quote, in 1906, Winston Churchill delivered a speech in the House of Commons that included, “Where there is great power there is great responsibility …”

Franklin and Churchill both preceded the internet. Buffett is still alive and likely shakes his head in wonder at some of the things he reads on the world wide web. All of these gentlemen, regardless of their era, were spot on in their assessments. 

Word of mouth is arguably the best marketing available, and we are fortunate to live in an age where word of mouth is easy and inexpensive to promote. Unfortunately, it’s also quite easy for word of mouth, and your reputation, to swiftly spiral into a disaster.

There are countless examples of people and businesses torpedoing their reputation with one misplaced comment, action, post or video. One need look no further than the recent firestorm over the Better.com CEO firing 900 employees over Zoom for a prime example. 

Stick around long enough, and the opportunity will present itself for you to step thigh-deep into a messy situation. Maybe it’s a bad review. An off-color joke you share. An overly passionate comment you leave. It’s easy to misspeak, or be misunderstood, especially in this day and age.

There have been volumes written and recorded about how not to act on the internet. Don’t discuss politics, religion or sex. Don’t drunk Tweet. Don’t be a troll. Separate work and private life. Don’t be overly aggressive.

Equally voluminous is advice on how to best act online. Be honest and sincere. Be helpful. Be nice. Ignore the haters (which may be bad advice). Each one of those do’s and don’t could be a column or book on their own. There is a lifetime of reading available out there on how to behave (or not) on the internet.

No matter how well we practice good behavior and etiquette online, there is a reasonable chance you may succumb to dings and bashes against your reputation. No one wants to be on the receiving end of bad word of mouth, but you would be incredibly naive to think it can’t happen to you.

Given that, you need to be prepared and have a plan on how to deal with bad word of mouth. Let’s take a look at some things that can go wrong and some ways to handle them.

1. Bad reviews

I’ve talked to literally hundreds of agents about online reviews. Some have chosen to avoid getting any reviews because they fear getting a bad one. Don’t let fear dictate your business decisions.

Giving up an incredible opportunity to publish positive word of mouth because you’re afraid some knucklehead out there is going to trash you is very short-sighted. If a bad review happens, deal with it and move on.

In a nutshell:

  • Don’t ignore a bad review.
  • Respond to the review with honesty, forethought, and compassion.
  • Don’t attack or be defensive.
  • Understand that one bad review isn’t the end of the world. It may very well add credibility to your five-star reviews.

2. Snarky comments left by others

It’s easy to hide behind a keyboard. Some people lose all dignity (and decency) because the anonymity the internet provides emboldens them to say whatever pops into their brains. They’ll sound off in ways they would never dream of if they were standing face to face with you.

While I’m not usually a proponent of ignoring damaging commentary, there are times when that’s the best action to take. Vicious personal attacks are ignorable.

Back in my days with Zillow, I was subject to many attacks online. “You suck!” and “I hate you!” and “You’re a shill” don’t fall into the “vicious personal attack” category. I’m talking, “Hopefully you’ll have another heart attack, and this time, the results will be different.”

Or, “Maybe I should bring my gun to the Zillow office and hold it to someone’s head.” Or my all-time least favorite, “I can find where your pretty daughter works and take out my frustrations on her.”

Ignore that level of absurdity. Those kinds of comments won’t damage your reputation; they will damage the writer’s reputation. Actually, don’t ignore them. Rather, don’t respond directly to threats. Let the police do that (as was done with those last two comments). 

If you choose to respond to a snarky, inappropriate, comment do so carefully. Be factual. Don’t stoop to the commenters’ level. One of my favorite sayings is, “Always take the high road. It’s less crowded, and the view is better.”

The long-standing internet mantra of, “Don’t feed the trolls” is solid advice. Often a simple reply of, “Whatever. I’ve got far better things to do with my time than engage with you” will shut down a thread.

Sometimes humor works. Sometimes it can backfire. Use humor with caution as some people just won’t get it.

One of my favorite exchanges was simple. I thought it was hilarious. Others may see it as unprofessional. At the time of this exchange, I didn’t really care what anyone thought. Maybe I should have cared. Who knows.

Commenter: Your an idiot!

Me: *you’re

Never heard from that guy again.

3. Snarky comments left by you

What you say online can be far more damaging to your reputation than what others say. The simple solution is: Don’t leave snarky comments. The problem is you may not see what you’re saying as something snarky, sarcastic, offensive or even questionable.

Try applying the “Grandmother test” to anything you write. It is as simple as, “Would I want my Grandmother to see this?” If the answer is, “Oh, no way” then don’t write it.

But if you do write it, and things devolve, then you need to own it. Don’t gloss it over. Don’t try to diminish it. Don’t whine about being misunderstood. A sincere apology can go a long way toward reducing potential damage. A well-crafted and sincere apology could even help your reputation.

Here’s one I left when a comment thread went way south and got quite heated:

“You know what folks? I was wrong to say these things. I let my emotions get the best of me, and I apologize. Don’t really know what else to say other than I made a mistake. Never set out to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I did. No excuses, I f**ked up, and I’m truly sorry.”

I was advised by many well-meaning friends to just delete my comments in that thread. But I think it’s far more appropriate to own your mistakes. There’s a thing in the online world called “dirty deleting,” and it’s rarely, if ever, a good idea. As this article points out, don’t ‘dirty delete’—it’s rude AF and you need to own your sh*t.

It is important to realize that the internet never forgets. You can’t just delete your way out of a mess. You may think you’ve deleted all the evidence of your transgressions, but there are archive sites and cached pages, and you’ll never know who has taken a screenshot.

We’re all human beings, and humans make mistakes. Owning your mistakes, sincerely, is rarely if ever a bad idea. Deleting your mistakes makes it look like you’re trying to hide something and are only in it for you. The internet won’t ever forget, but it may well forgive. 

Jay Thompson is a real estate veteran and co-founder of AgentLoop living in the Texas Coastal Bend. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. He holds an active Arizona broker’s license with eXp Realty. Called “the hardest working retiree ever,” as the founder of Jay.Life he writes, speaks, and consults on all things real estate.

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