A dozen considerations to build and protect your small business’ reputation

By Michelle van Schouwen

Among the most important assets a small business can have is its good reputation. In many cases, this reputation is an umbrella that includes the reputation of the business itself, your own professional and personal reputation, and the apparent attitudes and behaviors of your employees.

You have probably heard Warren Buffett’s sage words on this topic, but they are relevant here, so we will repeat them:

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

In both good times and bad, your reputation will serve you well. It may win you customers. It will make your day-to-day interactions more often pleasant than not. It also helps assure that you are treated with respect when times are tough and you could use help, advice or even another couple of weeks to pay that invoice sitting on your desk.

Start with just 12 ideas to help you develop and keep a great reputation:

1. Whatever you stand for as a business, make sure it’s well-intentioned. In other words, don’t run a business whose premise is to rip off customers in any way. (And yes, such businesses certainly do exist. Ever heard the phrase “tourist trap,” for example?) Checking out a reputation management agency might be a good way to make sure you’re on the right track.

2. Make sure you fulfill your business’ promise in the everyday choices you make. In How Google Works, authors Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg describes the meaning of Google’s famous mantra as follows: “Yes, it genuinely expresses a company value and aspiration that is deeply felt by employees. But “Don’t be evil” is mainly another way to empower employees… Googlers do regularly check their moral compass when making decisions.” As a small business, you should do the same.

3. If you feel that business conditions are starting to demand that you relax your ethical standards, it is likely time to change the business, not your standards.

4. Lead by example. Especially if you have employees, recognize that company culture develops top-down. If the CEO is a miserable you-know-what, employees often start to behave the same way. If she is savvy, wise and good-natured, her staff will tend to follow suit. Here is a good article from The CEO Institute on this subject.

5. Off-hours, continue to be that great person. Don’t have temper tantrums in the mall, underpay the babysitter, get drunk and carouse in public (or drive under the influence) and don’t be rude to people. This is always good advice, but as a businessperson with a reputation to maintain, you have one more reason to make it so.

6. Watch your keyboard! In these heady days of social media, that can be easier said than done. Your one rash or inopportune social media post or your one furious letter to the editor can go farther than all the carefully-thought-out communiqués you’ve issued all year.

7. Make changes whenever you need to. This includes customer and business direction moves, staffing changes, and other alternations to course, difficult or not, that keep your business healthy. In the long run, doing the right thing for the company is good for your reputation as a savvy business owner. BUT…

8. Whenever possible, don’t burn bridges and don’t make enemies. In most circumstances, you can handle change either the right way or the wrong way. Don’t be nasty when you stop using a vendor. If you must fire an employee, help him maintain his dignity. Be deferential to competitors. BUT…

9. When that’s not feasible, minimize the unpleasantness. It buys you nothing.

10. Get involved in something positive. Pay it forward, share your expertise, give your time. Maybe you’ll coach a team, serve on a board, support a non-profit, or mentor a young person. Do this consistently, not just for your reputation, but also because it feels good and is a good thing to do. (See my post “I gave at the office:” 17 ways to give back that are good for you and your small business on this blog).

11. If you have employees, make clear to them your expectations for customer service, work performance, decorum, dress, and anything else that is important to your business reputation. What’s more, employees with terrible reputations outside the office will unfortunately reflect poorly on your company as well. Within the bounds of your legal rights as an employer, strive to have respectable, nice people working for you.

12. Give yourself the mental space and sources of relaxation and renewal you need to maintain your own wellbeing. It is a lot easier to maintain the standards described in this article when overall, you are reasonably happy, rested and calm.

A good reputation will be your reward.


Michelle van Schouwen is president of van Schouwen Associates, LLC (vSA), a B2B marketing company based in Longmeadow, MA. The company is known for vSALaunch, its proprietary, modular and scalable system for B2B marketing launches, as well as its expertise in integrated marketing for B2B. Michelle continually works to grow van Schouwen Associates’ 30-years-in-the-making reputation for excellence. Contact Michelle at michelle@vsamarketing.com

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