Online review sites now give customers the power to write a public review of your business at any time, making many business owners feel completely defenseless against the potential onslaught.

Reviews can pop up when you least expect them, and they can have a lasting effect on how potential and regular customers perceive your business.

In short, online reviews can be a pain—especially if you're below the three-star average range.

Managing online reputation is absolutely essential to building a strong customer base and maintaining steady revenue, especially for small businesses. Most people will make their buying decisions through online research, and reviews are often a facilitating factor—especially when ratings are usually the first thing that a potential customer will see when searching for your business on Google.

Building a strong online reputation is no walk in the park, but following through with each of the following five tactics could effectively bring those scores up and promote an overall positive image of your company.

1. Immediately respond to every review on every site

What you'll accomplish...

  • You'll show potential and current customers that you care.
  • You'll locate and solve potential problems.

The major review sites for the general market are mainly Yelp, Facebook, Yahoo, and Google+. However, you need to be aware of the various review sites that pertain to your particular business and industry.

For example, e-commerce sites should be concerned about the reviews that their products receive on Amazon. Hotels and restaurants need to keep a close eye on TripAdvisor and Yelp, and preschools need to worry about

Managing reviews on all those sites takes a lot of work, which is why it's a good idea to assign at least one person to check each site daily. Make a list of every site where your business or product could be reviewed by a customer, and bookmark each page for easy access. Not every site will have a new review every day, so this process will be pretty quick and seamless.

Most sites allow you to respond to reviews, so write a response for EVERY review that you can, directly on the site: Share your perspective of an incident if there was a bad review, and try to rectify the issue publicly; also show your appreciation to customers who raved about your business. When you do, potential customers will see how responsive you are to both positive and negative reviews.

If a site doesn't allow a direct response to a review, see whether you can locate the particular customer's information and contact him/her; however, do so only if the customer gave you his/her information willingly. You can also write a response to the customer's profile directly if the site allows it.

Here's how you should handle review responses:

  • Respond to a positive review with a "thank you" and give them some incentive to come back again
  • Respond to a negative review by offering to help fix the situation. Provide your contact information and follow up with them if they don't reach out to you.

2. "Intercept" reviews before they're posted

What you'll accomplish...

  • You'll prevent negative reviews from being posted.
  • You'll resolve customer complaints before they're made public.

Create a system for consistently contacting customers immediately after they do business with you, and ask their opinion of your service. You can use online surveys that you send immediately after a transaction or an on-location visit, or at-the-counter forms that they can fill out.

Anything that you can do to receive a customer's opinion right when (or before) they walk out the door (figurative or actual) is important for managing reputation.

When you reach out to customers that quickly, you will have given them an outlet to express their potential grievances or compliments.

Allowing them a private outlet to voice their views could prevent them from ever posting negative reviews online—even if the problem isn't resolved—since they essentially get their complaints out of their system.

3. Locate your happy customers and get them to write about you

What you'll accomplish...

  • You'll build relationships with happy customers to keep them coming back.
  • You'll convince customers to recommend your services and spread positive word-of-mouth.

Intercepting customer opinions, as described earlier, can get you in contact with happy customers, who constitute the most important voice a business can have. However, most satisfied customers won't write a review unless the service that they received was on a positive level that they had never experienced before.

If you can intercept happy customers while a good experience is fresh in their minds, then you have the opportunity to direct them online to write a review.

But be careful how you phrase your follow-up message, because you need to ensure that the customer doesn't feel used and that you don't sound desperate. Simply providing the link within a message of gratitude could be enough to lead customers to those review sites.

You can also respond to popular reviews on lesser-known sites, and invite those customers to post their review on one of the better-known sites.

4. Use customer feedback as actionable advice

What you'll accomplish...

  • You'll receive valuable input (negative or positive) about your overall business.
  • You'll be able to improve your business by considering that input as heartfelt advice.

When viewing customer feedback—both online and in private—keep record of the responses. Using both positive and negative feedback as actionable advice for your business can help you improve the services that you provide.

If a customer is willing to discuss a certain aspect of your business with you or the world, then it likely really stood out in their eyes and will likely stand out to others as well.

Keep the data on all reviews and responses. Doing so is much easier if you can provide your customers with a survey that can be easily analyzed for data—for example, by using number ratings as responses to each question. If your questions are specific enough to each aspect of the service you provide, you can create a nice visual (chart/graph) that rates all areas of your business so you can easily locate your strengths and weaknesses to make proper adjustments.

5. Stay true to your promises

What you'll accomplish...

  • You'll not promise something that you can't follow through with.
  • You'll generate trust among customers and build a positive reputation.

Trustworthiness is the most important attribute for any business to maintain. Most frustrations will result from customers' not receiving the service they expect, and those expectations will often relate back to promises that a company failed to uphold.

Any statement that you make to the public and your customers shouldn't be broken, so it's up to you to keep track of every promise that you make.

Knowing what you have promised your customers makes it much easier to follow through with all of the above tactics, because miscommunications can then be sorted out honestly and effectively. Any complaints directed specifically toward an aspect of your customer service can be addressed accordingly—and improved.

* * *

If you follow the advice outlined above, promote excellent customer service, and follow through with your promises, your company's reputation will inherently grow as a result. All you need to do is to also take initiative rather than only react.

Bad reviews are not going to disappear, and good reviews will not magically grow on their own. Building your online reputation is in your hands.

More Resources on Bulding a Strong Online Reputation

Online Reputation Management 101: What You Need to Know [Infographic] 

How to Get the Most From Your Peer Review Site Subscription 

Local Business Links and Reputation: Competitive Difference-Makers in SEO

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image of Ajay Prasad

Ajay Prasad owns GMR Web Team, a digital marketing agency dedicated to helping businesses maximize revenue online. He also operates a Web-based business, GMR Transcription, which he built from scratch and grew by using strategies that he now uses for his digital marketing clients.

LinkedIn: Ajay Prasad