Consumers today have powerful digital voices. They don’t hesitate to share product and customer service opinions online and with social media channels. As a small business owner you can love them, you can hate them, but one thing is sure: you’d better be paying attention.

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Are local consumers talking online about YOUR business?

A recently released survey reveals that a whopping 90% of consumers who read reviews online say positive reviews influence their buying decisions. Negative reviews are just as powerful: 86% of consumers say bad reviews influence where they choose to spend their dollars.

The new data also shows that:

  • Over one-half of consumers (58%) are more likely to share customer service experiences today than they were five years ago, with more and more posting experiences on social network sites and online review forums.
  • Facebook was the leading source of positive reviews, and negative reviews were more commonly found on review sites.
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    Bad News? No, Opportunity to Respond and Build Credibility!

    Among those sharing bad experiences, 45% use social media and 35% use online review sites.

Small business owners: be proactive, and invest a little time! Keep your eyes open, monitor your own site as well as popular review sites and online listings for customer comments. Online consumers present you awesome opportunity. They can be powerful brand ambassadors, and boost positive word-of-mouth and public relations for your business.

Accentuate and recognize the good. A simple thank-you or “we love our customers” response can go a very long way. Think of your response as a big yellow highlighter, emphasizing to the world you care about customer service. Attract good feedback by making your best customers aware of review sites. Hand out a card with the web address to review sites or your Google listing, just as you would a comment card. (Note: avoid offering incentives. Your best customers will do it for free—and may be offended if you try to “buy” their loyalty.)

Along with opportunities, digital opinions also pose threats. So you’ve found a bad review. What do you do? Here are some suggestions for you to subdue the bad and help repair the ugly:

1.    Keep your cool. Sure, it feels like a slap in the face. Your first reaction may be to go on the defense—immediately. Not a good idea, even if you are right. Take some time and think it through.

2.    Decide if the comment is worth a response. If the language and opinions are clearly irrational, consider leaving it alone. But always respond to legit concerns and criticisms made by genuine customers.

3.    Research the event. If you’re in the wrong, apologize. Even if you don’t agree with the claim, avoid debate. There’s no positive pay off engaging in an online battle. Once you make a post, it’s there forever.

4.    Consider taking it offline, if it is an option. Introduce yourself, thank them for the concern and bringing it to your attention. Outline what you understand the complaint to be, then offer a resolution. Be polite and professional—a person can always take your response and post it publicly.

5.    Respond online. This is where you can repair the ugly. Acknowledge the concern, and keep your response simple. Other consumers will know what your company is doing to fix things. Thank the commenter for bringing things to your attention. You’ll be showing other reviewers, and more importantly readers (a.k.a. potential new customers), you’re paying attention, value feedback, and are taking action. People don’t care if the comment is true, false or who leaked it. They DO want your company to be responsible. You’ll be appreciated, and far more likely to be trusted in the future.

Finally, remember that tone is just as important as timeliness with any communication. Be professional, and always identify yourself as the business owner or spokesperson. Consider your reputation at all times! Your responses to reviews are priceless opportunities to represent your business, show you care and share your voice with future customers.