By Robert Lerose

When a customer has a negative experience with a small business, he or she has the power to share that frustration publicly by posting a hostile review online. Popular sites like Yelp and Angie’s List give consumers a place to vent, potentially threatening the reputation and profitability of practically any business.

Online reviews exert huge influence on customer behavior. A 2016 survey conducted by search engine agency BrightLocal found that 60 percent of consumers said “that negative reviews make them not want to use a business” and 87 percent said “that a business needs a rating of 3-5 stars before they will use them.”

While negative reviews are something that every small business should pay attention to, damaging comments don’t have to be lethal. In fact, they can actually improve a company’s performance if they are addressed thoughtfully.

“Often negative business reviews provide a business owner with a really great opportunity to see their company as customers might see them and not necessarily as how business owners themselves see their own company,” says Todd William, CEO of Reputation Rhino,  a New York City-based online reputation management firm that specializes in helping small and mid-sized businesses. “In a way, it’s a looking glass into things that are working and things that might not be working.”

For example, William finds that among the most frequent complaints made against retailers are how returns are handled, poor customer service, and unreliable shipping times. With the problems identified, a retailer could win back customer approval by taking proactive steps such as retraining the customer service staff, making the return policy more lenient, and coming up with a more realistic shipping timetable.

But, says William, negative reviews never have to make it online to begin with if the small business has procedures in place to handle complaints when they first come up. “It’s rare that an issue is first brought to the attention of a business on a review site,” he explains. “Customers take out their frustration on Yelp because they either don’t feel like they’re being heard by the business or the right people in business aren’t hearing the complaints.”

Respond promptly and listen

If negative comments do make it online, businesses ignore them at their own peril. Rather, they should be handled promptly and diplomatically. William says to respond within 24 to 48 hours “to have a little emotional and psychological distance from the complaint and to put yourself in the customer’s shoes for a moment.” He advises responding to every review, negative and positive. Expressing thanks in public for a positive review recognizes the time and effort of your customer and demonstrates your gratitude and appreciation.

Addressing negative reviews should be handled by inviting the customer to discuss the matter offline, William says, so as not to turn it into a spectacle for the whole world to watch. Depending on the business, either the owner or another representative should post a brief simple reply with their contact information and a sincere wish for the customer to get in touch. Once the offline conversation begins, business owners should be attentive.

“Do more listening than talking. Give the customer the opportunity to really share their experience in as full and complete a manner as they want,” William says. “Many people just want to be heard and this is the first time that anyone with authority and responsibility is actually having a conversation with them.”

Once the business owner knows what prompted the negative review, he or she should respond constructively. For example, he should acknowledge that the business might not have lived up to the customer’s expectations and validate their complaint. But if the lapse was due to an extraordinary circumstance that was out of the business’s hands—such as dealing with the aftermath of a hurricane or some other unexpected problem—the owner should say so. Customers can be surprisingly forgiving. Often, making a sincere apology, offering a gift certificate, or taking some other action on the customer’s behalf can neutralize their hostility. Then, take it one step further.

“When the review that was originally written no longer reflects the current reality—for the individual customer or the company—it’s a great opportunity for the company to ask the customer to reconsider the review, either by updating and changing the review to reflect the new reality or to remove the review entirely,” William says.

Reviews and the company’s response should be shared with the business team. Positive reviews will certainly motivate team members and negative reviews can initiate an internal company discussion about possible changes that need to be made. “It takes a lot of creativity, effort, and attention by management for making reviews a priority,” William says. “From my view, [managing] reviews should be near the top of the list from a marketing and branding perspective.”