CHRIS SUNDERMEIER, GENERAL COUNSEL, REPUTATION.COM
Former Silicon Valley litigator Chris Sundermeier chats about his company’s software-based tool for online
reputation management and the implications of new privacy regulations.
GC: Could you start by telling me about your own background and how you came in-house?
Chris Sundermeier (CS): I spent 15 years at a Silicon Valley-based technology law firm Cooley LLP. At Cooley, I spent a lot of time working with tech companies, doing a variety of different types of litigation. I always felt like it would be interesting to go in-house and, rather than consult as an outsider on litigaton and make recommendations about what the company should do, really work on the bigger picture business and make the actual decisions about what the company should do. I came to Reputation.com specifically becausete former CEO of this company was a client of mine, and when I realised he was looking for a general counsel, I reached out to him. It was a good decision and I have been here for the last five years.
GC: Can you tell me about Reputation.com as a company?
CS: The Company is about ten years old. It started out helping consumers manage their reputation online. In the last few years, it has grown into an enterprise Software as a Service company, where we essentially allow large multi-location businesses to manage their online reputation more effectively. They can understand what’s being said about them on all the major review sites, manage the review process by requesting and responding to reviews from customers, do surveys of their customers, monitor and manage their social media pages, and manage their online business listings.
Companies spend a huge amount of time and energy on marketing and getting their brand known, but if their reputation is not good, then all the money spent on marketing is wasted. These days, most people look for customer feedback before they make their purchase decisions – when considering a purchase, they immediately go and look at the reviews. Our goal is to help enterprises get to a position where their online reputation accurately reflects the quality of their business.
GC: Do you work to improve reputation, as well as monitoring?
CS: Yeah, we work to improve reputation in a number of ways. Monitoring gives you information, and if you do the right kind of analytics on that information, and present it to the customer, they can derive actionable insights from that. For example, if you’re a large company with hundreds of locations, we give a reputation score to each of the locations, which allows the larger organisation to figure out which of their locations need operational help to improve their reputations.
With our SaaS platform, we enable businesses to reach out to all of their customers and say, ‘Hey, did you like your experience with us? Would you like to review us?’ What we’ve seen is that as more customers review your business, you get a better and more accurate picture of not only of what the problems with a business are, but what the strengths of the business are as well.
We also give companies the ability to do surveys, again finding more out about their company and what their customers’ concerns are. Through the process of gathering information from reviews and surveys, and using that information to improve their business, our enterprise customers generally end up with happier customers, and a better reputation online.
GC: You guys are still quite big in your growth phase, you’ve just acquired a business out in Europe. Can you tell me about where you see the company growing?
CS: We are a startup within a company that has been around for a while. The enterprise business is only about four or five years old, but we’ve gained a tremendous amount of traction with a lot of pretty big name, large enterprise customers.
We’ve found that healthcare companies are extremely interested in their reputations, both because it’s important for government funding – because hospitals are required to do certain surveys of their patients as part of government reimbursement programmes, but also generally, hospitals are finding out that just being known as a great brand hospital is not enough – people will still go and look at the reviews of the individual healthcare providers and locations. During the last year or so, we’ve really focused on the healthcare space and have experienced enormous growth in that vertical.
Prior to that, our largest vertical was automotive. We’re continuing to expand within all the verticals we’re already in, we’re expanding the number of verticals we’re going into, and we’re expanding internationally. We’ve got some large customers in Australia, in Mexico, in the UK, and we have just opened another office in Germany in the last few months. We’re finding that this is a strong international need for our broad reputation management platform, and so we’re really pushing to grow.
GC: And is your business something you think will become increasingly important as time goes on?
CS: All the statistics indicate that more and more and more people go to the internet before buying. What’s interesting is that when we started this business a few years ago, even the way Internet search results were presented to you was completely different. If you were searching for a burger place in Redwood City, you’d just get a list of ten burger places. Now, you get a map with big pins and small pins on it. The larger pins are restaurants that are more highly rated and have more reviews for them. You’ll also see the restaurants’ hours of operation and a star rating for each business. If you have a lowered star rating, then you may not even make it onto the first page of the search results -- which has made everybody care very much about what their review life is. A business has to care about its reviews if it wants to actually be found in an Internet search.
Like a lot of people, I don’t like to go to the store anymore. Instead, I go online to buy things, and the first thing I do when I consider purchasing something is look at all the reviews. I look at all the good ones, of course, but then I also go and look at the bad ones, because I want to see the balanced picture. And that’s what we try and give people – the balanced picture.
GC: Is manipulation of reviews a problem?
CS: There are individual consumers who can have a big impact on a location or a brand because they had a negative experience, so they can disproportionately impact how people perceive that location. Reviews can be very powerful. However, what we have found is that if more actual customers give genuine reviews of a restaurant, you end up with a fairer assessment. There may be some strengths and some weaknesses and it doesn’t make their food any better, but you get a fairer assessment over a larger subset of reviews.
The importance of reviews does lead people to want to create fake reviews. The governments in the US, the UK, the EU and other places have cracked down on creating reviews for pay or for any kind of benefit. But fake reviews can be a problem and will continue to be a problem. There’s always going to be someone clever trying to game the system.
GC: Can you tell me about the relevant regulations and legislative considerations that you have to make?
CS: The regulations that are most important in any business like ours these days are privacy and securityrelated. A lot of the information we’re dealing with is public information, so it doesn’t impact us as much as some other organisations, but when you’re talking about doing reviews and surveys for healthcare companies then you have to be HIPAA-compliant [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act], which we are.
In addition, when you are online, someone is trying to hack you at all times. As a result, everybody is concerned about the safety of their data, where it’s being held, how secure it is, and what’s being done with it, and so those are the things that we spend a lot of time thinking about – trying to make our clients comfortable that we’re doing what we need to do to make sure their data is protected. That’s the kind of stuff that keeps you up at night: are you sufficiently secure, are you doing what you need to do to make sure all privacy issues are addressed?
GC: Is IP a big consideration for you, and a big part of your role?
CS: It is. We’re constantly trying to figure out how to protect what we do. We have maybe 25 patents at this point, and we have another 25-30 in the various stages of prosecution with the [US] Patent and Trademark Office. We’re in a market that’s evolving so fast – something that was a fantastic idea two years ago that we’re trying to patent quickly becomes outdated in two more years -- and that makes protection harder. You’re back to just outrunning everybody else, which works, but is not quite as secure.
GC: Were you the first lawyer to join the business?
CS: Actually the founder, Michael Fertik, has a legal background having gone to Harvard Law School, so he has always valued having a general counsel, and hired GCs before me. When I joined the company, however, there was no lawyer here.
GC: Has your legal team grown since then?
CS: We try to leverage as many outside resources as we can. Within the next year or so we’re going to have to grow. Hopefully we’ll be able to hire at least one or two more lawyers next year.
GC: Can you tell me a little bit about what you see as the big events or challenges on the horizon over the next year or so?
CS: Staying compliant with the evolving privacy and security rules is a big concern. There are also a lot of evolving electronic communications laws being passed – people are tired of being inundated with calls and emails and texts etc. So, staying on top of rules around getting consent and making sure that you are getting consent in a way that complies with a whole variety of different rules around these issues is a concern.
I think the biggest thing for us right now is just continuing to grow. Two years ago, you had to convince people that they needed this technology. The market has matured enough that people now are out there looking for it. We’ve got a proven product, a proven market, and we just need to step on the gas and grow over the next couple of years.