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Vendor and Product Reputation
It's difficult to define exactly what "reputation" means, as I discovered after four false starts at writing this page. :^) The reputation of a product, a vendor or a manufacturer represents what the marketplace as a whole thinks of that product, vendor or manufacturer. If a product or vendor is well thought of, it is said to have a good reputation; if it is poorly regarded, its reputation is poor.
This concept of reputation is formed from a mixture of the objective and the subjective: assessment of real attributes, combined with the all important factor of perception. Perception can't be quantified, because it is based upon personal, subjective views of the world, and also because the perception of a product or company is strongly affected by proactive efforts made by companies to influence it: marketing and advertising.
Reputation is important because it represents a "boiling down" of the essence of a product or company: usually, if something is good then it will have a good reputation, and if not, it won't. This isn't always the case: occasionally something will have a good or bad reputation for unwarranted reasons. But it's certainly something to consider before starting a relationship with a company.
Reputation is most important when it is on either end of the spectrum: very good, or very bad. If you find that most people consider something to be junk, it probably is; if most consider it great, again, it probably is. In the middle, things become a bit more fuzzy, and you have to exercise more judgment.
Before making a major purchase, you should determine what the market thinks of the product, vendor and/or manufacturer you are considering. This requires you to make use of the research resources I discuss in another section. Of particular value are the online independent research resources, because they quickly provide the most data from the most sources. The more information you can gather about a company, the better your picture of their reputation will be.
A very important thing to remember when assessing the reputation of a company is to be sure that the impressions you are reading are based on personal experience and not just on the company's claims and marketing. Many companies invest millions of dollars in marketing, both explicit and subtle, to create the impression that they and their products are market leaders and trustworthy. I personally know of several companies that on the surface seem to be "big names" and "industry leaders". But when you dig deeper, you find that they have an enormous base of dissatisfied customers, and worse, that they don't really care.
Another important issue is negative feedback: be sure not to overvalue one or two dissatisfied customers. Every company has the occasional problem--and, I must add, the occasional difficult customer. What you are looking for are overall trends, to determine what the overall opinion is of whatever you are considering. An interesting phenomenon that I have observed is that many people (perhaps understandably) react very emotionally to a problem with a product. They won't say "this product has a problem" but rather "don't buy this product, it sucks!!!" If hundreds of people are saying this, that may well be true, but if only one or two are, it may well not be the product that is the problem.
Finally, remember that people who are unhappy tend to talk a lot more than ones who are satisfied. If your power went off for a day, or your credit card was declined at a restaurant, you'd take action, and if it happened frequently, you'd be justifiably ticked off, and tell others. But when's the last time you called up your electrical utility to tell them what a good job they are doing, or wrote to your credit card company to thank them for not screwing up your account? :^) This is just human nature; we are all busy and have better things to do with our time than congratulate people just for doing what we expect them to do as a result of our paying them.
Similarly, most people expect good quality and good service today. As a result, negative feedback dominates most discussions, except in certain forums where positive feedback is specifically encouraged (such as ResellerRatings.com). As a consequence, it can appear at times that nearly every product on the market is junk unless you interpret the feedback you read in context. Remember that when you read five good comments and five bad ones, the good comments probably represent a much larger number of satisfied customers than the bad comments represent dissatisfied ones.
Next: Financial Stability