Do you know what one of biggest fears that small business owners have?

Getting a negative online review.

I think that's because business owners know how important word-of-mouth referrals are to their business. Ask any business owner what their best source of new customer is, and they will tell you it is from "word-of-mouth referrals."

And when people leave us reviews online, it's like a referral - good or bad - that is out there for everyone to see. (In a recent survey 72% of people said they trust online reviews as much as a review from a friend.)

Yet, online reviews are still sort of a "black art" for many business owners. Questions quickly arise like: Where can people leave me a review? How do they work? Can I change them if they are bad? What if a competitor leaves a bad one? Do I have any recourse at all?

Threat, or Opportunity?

On the surface, online reviews seem pretty scary - there are lots of unknowns.

But in reality, they represent more of an opportunity than a threat. Here's why.

Savvy business owners can turn negative online reviews into an opportunity to show top-notch customer service, and gain customers for life as a result. I've seen this happen over and over again.

And many business owners carefully cultivate online reviews and positive referrals to grow their business - the best kind of marketing you can get. And less expensive too.

So how do you turn this scary world of online reviews around into something that works for you, rather than against you?

Be Proactive.

How to handle online reviews - a game plan:

  1. Monitor. First you need to know where customers leave reviews about your business online. Most businesses don't even know what reviews are being left about their business. You need to monitor the major review sites for your industry and make sure you know when people leave you new online reviews.
  2. Respond. Once you know about the reviews, you can respond to them. If you get a negative review, many of the major review sites allow you to respond. In Yelp, you can respond privately to the reviewer and try to remedy the situation. If they aren't willing to work with you, you can leave a public comment on the review through your Yelp Business Dashboard. Make sure to keep your public response classy - everyone will see it. Google also allows business owners to leave public responses.
  3. Encourage. Encourage your best customers to leave you online reviews. Make it easy for them. Send them a follow up email after their visit, with a direct link to your Google+ page and ask them to take 5 minutes and leave you a review. Building these up over time will help both your rankings and conversions.

Of course, the best way to avoid negative online reviews, and get more positive ones, is to engage with your customers. Ask them for feedback after a visit, and make sure they know you care about them.

Remember: it costs 6x more to get a new customer than it does to keep an existing one.

So go the extra mile for your customers. Build those long-term relationships. The payoff will be huge in the long run!