If you have a business that deals with the public, it is almost inevitable that you’ll get a negative online review at some point. To a small business owner, a highly critical review can be alarming, especially if the business is local and has a relatively small base of potential clients. If you are providing a specialized service (e.g. high-end wedding planning, special event catering, etc.) personal referrals and word-of-mouth carry much more weight than they might for a business with high volume and a varied base of customers.

Your reputation is the most precious commodity you have. Like it or not, we live in a digital world, and it is a good idea to be prepared to handle online reviews. Here are some steps to take to safeguard your good name.

  1. Time is of the essence. Know what is being said about your company on influential sites as soon as possible. If your business attracts the attention of reviewers on the bigger sites – Google, Yelp, Trip Advisor, etc. – consider investing in a service that can monitor multiple platforms in real time and will alert you when reviews appear online.
  2. Stay focused and calm when you see a negative review. It is very difficult (read: almost impossible) to persuade a review site to remove a negative post unless it comes from a competitor and you are able to prove it. Most sites will not arbitrate disputes between companies and customers; they will leave reviews up whether they are good, bad or indifferent.
  3. The sheer number of reviews and reviewers works in your favor. If you spot a bad review or two, encourage your repeat (happy) customers to write something with a different perspective. Along with your customer comment card and/or usual feedback mechanism, ask customers to review you on Yelp and/or other popular sites.
  4. Reply to all comments – not just the negative ones. Remember, you are managing your online reputation, not putting out fires. An acknowledgement or thank you for a compliment is just as important to your overall image as a measured response to a customer complaint.
  5. If you are replying to a bad review, make sure your response is polite, constructive and professional. If this is difficult because you are too angry, delegate the task to someone who can write well without succumbing to put-downs or sarcasm. Try to approach the criticism as an opportunity to identify a need for change. If you are genuine and helpful and offer a way to resolve problems, you take the sting out of the criticism and demonstrate to other customers that you are a caring, respectful business owner.
  6. If you discover a genuine mistake and realize that the customer’s complaint is legitimate, own up to it as quickly as possible. Everyone – no matter how committed to customer service – drops the ball once in a while. The willingness to step up, apologize and offer to set things right publicly demonstrates that your company is committed to providing good service.

Make sure your employees know that you value an open and honest approach to customer communications. Don’t fear bad reviews or let a negative comment create a disproportionate amount of distress in your company. View criticism as a chance to fix problems in a timely manner and to demonstrate a true commitment to customer care.