Businesses need to treat people who make online comments the same as those who visit their physical stores, because in today’s world, they are no different, members of the Brownwood Area Chamber of Commerce were told at Friday’s monthly luncheon.

Shelia Scarborough, writer, speaker and trainer specializing in tourism, travel and social media, said ignoring online comments about your business is the same as ignoring the office telephone when it rings.

“A lot of people have let themselves get overwhelmed,” Scarborough said. “Technology is not that scary. It’s a tool. You already know the hard part — your business.”

She conceded that keeping up with everything means businesses must dedicate time and resources to websites and social media, “but that’s part of the deal now. This is 2017.”

It doesn’t mean merely assigning online responsibilities to a 20-something member of the staff, because it seems younger people are more comfortable with technology.

“They may know technology, but they don’t know what you know — customer service and your business,” Scarborough said. “You’re probably rocking at what you do, but if your website shows you’re stuck in 1997, well — sigh. You must match your offline experience with a great online experience.”

Along with Leslie McLellan, Scarborough operates from Austin area based Tourism Currents, offering online and in-person training in social media especially aimed at tourism and hospitality.

Customers and tourists expect personal online interactions these days, Scarborough said, including prompt responses to online comments on social media. Online platforms represent more than just opportunities for marketing, she explained, they also provide ways to exhibit outstanding customer service.

“Sorry, this is not a 9-to-5, Monday through Friday world,” Scarborough said. “Somebody could post something on Friday night and everything blow up because it’s not 9 o’clock Monday morning yet.”

What people say about a company can have an effect on its business, but often owners are not aware that they are building a reputation online. As a result, they are doing nothing about it.

“Interacting is very important to your online reputation,” Scarborough said. “It looks like you’re ignoring them when you don’t interact, because that’s what you’re doing.”

She said it is just as important to interact when someone has something positive to say as when someone says something negative.

“Say thank you,” Scarborough said. “That’s very powerful.” She offered an example of posting a positive comment about a Detroit business, and the owner found her while she was still there and offered her a freebie in appreciation. Another time, while at a hotel that exceeded her expectations, she posted a complimentary comment with positive photos. Her praises were never acknowledged.

The same policy should hold after criticism.

“Treat negative stuff (online) as you would in person,” she said, which means apologizing and trying to resolve the problem if that’s possible. “It’s uncomfortable, but in business that’s the nature of the beast. The worst thing to do is not respond.”

A response at least shows others who see the complaint that the business is willing to acknowledge seeing the criticism, and to work with someone with customers, even if the person who complains can’t be satisfied. Meanwhile, other customers often jump to the defense of the business if they have had a different experience, or if the complaint seems unreasonable. Those comments can more than overshadow the original complaint.

Businesses should monitor their “digital storefront” by looking for themselves online to find out what customers see when they search for them. Scarborough urged streamlining the effort by using any of several online tools and websites that send notifications when your name or business is mentioned. Some of them are free.

She suggested looking toward the middle of lists of reviews to find more accurate ones.

It’s also important for businesses to post photos, she said, so the online experience can “align” with the personal experience.

One example she gave was for a California hotel that was near where she needed to be, but she had doubts about its quality due to its age and brand.

“The online activities gave me confidence that this was a good place to stay,” Scarborough said. “They answered the reviews and had photos, and when I got there, the photos matched up. It all aligned. It made sense.”

Scarborough mentioned the major social media sites businesses can use to interact with customers — Facebook, Twitter and Instagram — but said not to waste effort on platforms customers aren’t using. However, it is prudent to monitor other sites in case something is posted there.

“Be responsive when someone uses it,” Scarborough said of social media sites. “Don’t say, ‘I don’t want to deal with this.’ Your customers are dealing with this.”