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Most small business owners will tell you that word of mouth advertising is their best source of new business.

But many don’t know that their customers have left online reviews about their business – and what customers are saying about them online is either helping or hurting their sales.

A recent study by market research firm Razorfish found that:

61% of people rely on user reviews for product information or research before a buying decision is made.

This is just one way the internet is revolutionizing consumer behavior.  And that’s why you need to be aware of your online reputation – and manage it proactively.

As an internet marketing strategist working with local small businesses, it amazes me how few business owners I meet realize that people have left online reviews about their business  – and that this online buzz is either helping or hurting their sales.

Have You Checked Your Online Reputation Lately?

If you haven’t done so recently, go to the following local business directories, type in your business name and location, and see if your customers have submitted any reviews about you or your business:

  • Google.com (Look in Google Places)
  • Yelp.com
  • Merchantcircle.com
  • Superpages.com
  • Yellowpages.com

Your Online Reviews Matter

Like it or not, there’s a good chance that people are reading about you and your business online and making purchase decisions based on what others are saying.

Equally important:  the number of online reviews for your business can help your search engine results.  The business with more reviews (good OR bad) will likely rank higher in search engine results than competing businesses with no or fewer reviews.

How to Manage Your Online Reputation

Now that you know how important online reviews can be for your business, you should consider setting up a process that encourages your happy customers to review you online.  At the same time, you should set up a process to identify unhappy customers as soon as possible, so you can address their dissatisfaction and resolve it as soon as possible.

Managing your online reputation can be as simple as letting your customers know that online reviews are important to your business, and showing them where they can go to review you.  You can  ask them to review you through your Google Places page, your Merchant Circle listing, or your listing on Yelp.com.

Happy customers will usually be happy to help your business do better – and it only takes a few minutes of their time to write a few sentences telling others what they like about their experience with you.

What To Do If You Get a Bad Review

No one likes to get a bad review – especially when the whole world can see it!  But it’s a fact of life that bad reviews will happen for most businesses.  No one can please everybody all the time.

The best way to handle a bad review is to respond to the complaint as quickly as possible.  While it’s human nature to take bad reviews personally – they can really hurt! – it’s best to cool down before you respond.

If you can identify the customer who left the complaint, call them up and let them know you read their review, that their satisfaction is important to you, and ask what you can do to resolve their complaint.  Many customers will be pleasantly surprised that you cared enough to respond in person.

Assuming you are able to resolve their issue to their satisfaction, you can ask the complainer to please leave a new review letting readers know that their original complaint has been resolved satisfactorily.

If you can’t identify the reviewer, the next best option is to respond to the review in writing on the review site, and let the writer know that you have read the review, that you are sorry they were less than satisfied with your product or service, that you take their complaint seriously and that you are taking steps to ensure that the cause of their dissatisfaction doesn’t arise again.