When you’re thinking of trying a new restaurant, what do you do first?

What if you’re looking to buy a new computer? Vacuum? Blender? Pair of pants?

Most people do some research first. And that research consists largely of reading online reviews on sites like Amazon, Yelp, Facebook and Google.

Online reviews can be tricky – for a few reasons. Research has proven that consumers are more likely to review a company or product if they’ve had a negative experience than they are following a positive one.

There are ways to try to cheat the system and trick potential customers. And some companies use them.

But we’re not going to talk about ways you can try to cheat the system. Dishonest business is dishonest business, and most consumers will eventually see through it.

So how do you honestly and respectfully acquire positive reviews and testimonials from your customers in this era when every slip-up makes it into a review to live forever?

Online reputation management is a critical part of overall brand management, and if you’ve been ignoring it, well, we can practically guarantee that you’ve been losing customers because of it.

So here’s what you do.

If you have no time or personnel to manage this yourself, hire an outside company to do it for you. It’s that simple. And important – if you don’t think it’s important, you’re fooling yourself.

If you decide to tackle it yourself, here are some of the basic ideas to keep in mind.

First, when you deal with satisfied customers, ask them for reviews! There are many services out there that automatically generate emails requesting reviews. Many of them also allow you to screen reviews, so negative ones come directly to you, not the World Wide Web. A solid showing of realistically positive reviews from real customers can go a long way to balance out a few inevitable not-so-great ones.

Next, Remember that your customers have a LOT of power. A truly negative review can do a lot of damage. It’s easier to convince a person that something isn’t worth their money than to convince them that it is.

So don’t get caught off guard. The more proactive you are in managing your overall reputation, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to thwart negative reviews before they happen. Unhappy customers will often present an option to address the issue before they take online, but if you’re not looking for those opportunities, you’ll miss them.

If you take just one thing away from this article, make it this: Don’t ignore negative reviews!

What do you do when a negative review pops up? Deal with it directly. If possible, contact the reviewer (phone, email, private message, etc.) to apologize and find out if there’s something you can do to rectify the situation. If you can’t contact the person directly, respond on the review site asking him/her to contact you.

Often, an unhappy customer can become a happy customer simply by feeling as though their complaints have been heard and that the company has taken an honest stab at fixing it.

What should you not do when a negative review pops up (besides ignore it)? Don’t respond with anger or malice. Unfortunately, as discussed earlier, customers have a lot of power here. And let’s face it: customers have a lot of stupid complaints. They’re seeing a tiny fraction of the big picture that is your company. They may complain about something you can’t control. Or their expectations may just be way out of whack. Whatever the complaint, when you’re dealing with online reviews – the customer is always right. So set aside your pride, apologize, and offer them a refund or free crab cakes the next time they come in.

To sum up all of the above, just remember this: as with cars, personal hygiene, plumbing and your weight, maintenance is easier than repair. So try to prevent situations that your customers might feel compelled to complain about. And if they do complain, do your very best to politely and empathetically rectify the experience.

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