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Many years ago, there was a famous general known for his cunning strategy. At the end of one conflict, he stopped with a small battalion of soldiers to rest. One of his enemies heard of his refuge and marched his entire army toward the general's encampment.

The general's aide woke him up in the middle of the night and warned him that the enemy was close and would be there before dawn. The general knew that his tiny band of soldiers would be no match for the army, so he ordered his men to open the gates and hide. Then he donned a cloak and started playing a mandolin as the enemy army approached.

The enemy leader ordered his forces to halt. He knew the general's reputation for wily deeds and deadly traps. Unwilling to take a risk, the leader ordered his forces to retreat.

Such is the power of a good reputation.

My father, Jack, always used to tell me: "You spend your whole lifetime building a good name and reputation, and one foolish act can destroy it."

I took his words to heart. Aside from building long-term relationships, there is nothing more important than a good reputation in building a successful business.

Reputation is one of the few assets that your competition cannot undersell or destroy.

Reputation doesn't happen overnight. It takes time. But if you do the right thing consistently, you will build a great reputation. Reputation is never completely secured — it must be continually earned.

A good reputation depends on many factors: quality products, honesty and fairness in dealing with customers and employees, following through, keeping your promises, not cutting corners and never, ever sacrificing your integrity.

There are many people who were at the top of their games when they made one fatal mistake — due to poor judgment, arrogance or the inability to do the right thing.

They they faced the really difficult task of repairing the damage. Regaining trust requires rebuilding all the bridges you burned. It's like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube, except a whole lot harder.

I was fascinated by a study where pollsters asked more than 16,000 people to pick the companies and brands that they felt had the best reputations. Imagine the goodwill from making the list of the top seven: Patagonia, Costco, John Deere, Trader Joe's, Chick-fil-A, Toyota Motor Corp. and Samsung.

Those are major players. But smaller operations must work just as hard to maintain their place in the public eye. It doesn't matter if you are the only grocery store in town, or the only plumber, or the only law firm — how you perform and how you treat your clientele will determine whether you will be in business tomorrow.

Word-of-mouth is not just from person to person. In the era of the internet, online reputation is just as important. Your Google results shape widespread opinion of your company and brand.

For example, 95% of customers browse online reviews before making a purchase, 50% of consumers will question a brand's competency if they have negative reviews, and 69% of job seekers won't take a job with a company that has a bad reputation.

If those statistics don't concern you, read them again.

Consider all that you could lose. Is it worth taking a chance that no one will notice if you let your guard down just this once?

Mackay's Moral: Sometimes it takes only an hour to get a reputation that lasts for a thousand years.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or email