Your first instinct on seeing a negative online review may be to immediately and vigorously defend your business.

After all, you work hard to make sure everyone—from customers to employees—has a great experience. Not to mention, 80% of customers have changed their mind about a purchase after reading negative reviews, according to a survey conducted by Cone Communications.

Unfortunately, making an overly defensive response is usually the wrong move.

Potential customers may read your passion as hostility, and you could end up losing more customers than you save.

So, what is the right way to handle this situation?

First, realize that all hope is not lost. Second, make a plan for responding. Third, be consistent in your approach.

Monitor your online presence

To react to what customers are saying about you, you first need to find what they're saying and where they're saying it. The best place to start is by claiming all listings of your business on review sites like Yelp, Google+, and Urbanspoon.

In addition to being able to review and respond to reviews, you can add or correct important information, including business hours, address, phone number, menus, prices, and photos. Some sites also allow you to offer special deals to people who check in at your business or who leave a review.

You should also set up and interact with social accounts for your business. Doing so will allow you to talk to customers directly and head off problems before they start. Think about it: If your customers are going to be talking sharing the good and the bad of your business on social media with or without your presence, wouldn't you rather know about it and be involved?

Another good step you can take is to set up a Google Alert, or something similar, to let you know when someone mentions your brand online—for example, if a news service or blogger reviews your business.

Negative reviews can actually contribute to sales

Yes, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, some negative reviews are actually good for your business. That's because all-positive or five-star reviews can seem somewhat manufactured.

You may know that your customers just love you and your service, but to someone who is looking at your business, it may seem like you paid for the reviews or wrote them yourself.

Seeing some negative reviews mixed in with the good can also make customers feel as if they're "doing their research." If they see your not-so-perfect side and decide to make a purchase anyway, they're likely more committed to the decision.

Craft the right response

OK, now that you've gotten an idea about why negative reviews are not the end of the world, it's time to discuss how to handle them.

Even if a few bad reviews can be "good," you don't want to give people (both the customer with the bad experience and future customers reading the review) the impression that you don't care or that you're ignoring people.

With that in mind, here are some general guidelines to follow:

Be real and admit your mistakes

Let's face it, even with your good intentions, sometimes things happen that are less than ideal. If you've made a mistake, or if one of your employees has, own up to it. Don't try to make excuses or turn yourself into the victim. Apologize for the experience sincerely. Don't use fake "half" apologies, such as "sorry if you were offended, but..." People can tell the difference.

Correct inaccuracies

Sometimes reviewers may exaggerate what happened or try to make the experience seem worse than it was. If you think a review contains inaccurate details, you can make corrections. Do this matter-of-factly and kindly as part of your response, and move on. Don't accuse the reviewer of anything.

If, on the other hand, you think someone is posting malicious, inaccurate reviews in an attempt to damage your business's reputation, you can attempt to dispute the reviews via the specific review site. The process is a bit different for each site, and it's something that may be easier said than done, but you can try.

Highlight your strengths

Be sure to highlight what you do well and what you are known for. Assure them that their experience is not typical, and promise to do better.

Write like a person, not a corporation

Stay away from jargon, and try to write like you speak. Don't give a canned response or fill it up with unnecessary "legalese."

Take it offline

One of the best things you can do to let potential customers know you are actually interested in correcting problems is offering an offline solution. Give the name of a customer service manager in the response and a phone number to call. You can also message negative reviewers privately via social media.

Don't give up on negative reviewers: If you're take steps to address their concerns, you can often convert them back to your business. You may even be able to turn them into brand advocates.

Provide restitution if it's warranted

Can you provide something that will make the experience better? A free meal or a coupon for a certain percent off their next purchase?

Ask loyal customers to share their experiences

Lots of positive reviews are the best counter to bad reviews. Ask your best customers to review you honestly. Put reminders on your flyers, your website, your menus, or your window decals. Make personal appeals to any customers you have a relationship with.

Be consistent

Respond to all your customers using the same guidelines. In fact, it's not a bad idea to craft some "rules" for responding (timeframe for the response, policies regarding offers of free products, etc.) and make all your employees aware of them.

You have an opportunity

Look at your negative reviews as an opportunity to learn. Maybe there really are changes that need to happen or policies that you need to put in place to make the customer experience better.

Most of all, though, don't be discouraged and don't respond hastily. Online, it's not just about losing one customer—it's about your reputation. Take some time to think about and create a perfect response, and you'll likely win over more customers than you realize.

How do you handle negative reviews? What's been your experience?

More Resources on Negative Reviews

Eight Types of Online Reviewers, and How to Handle Them [Infographic] 

The Yelp Effect: How to Deal With Negative Reviews

What Consumers Pay Attention to in Local Business Reviews

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image of Holly Cordner

Holly Cordner is a marketing manager in Salt Lake City. She writes for CityGro, which helps businesses of all sizes connect with their customers. Her first love is technology; tofu is a close second.