The Best Defense Is a Good OffenseBusinesses must accept the reality that customers, sometimes competitors and even just troublemakers, may post complaints and bad reviews online. When it comes to protecting your online reputation, an old football adage applies: “The best defense is a good offense.” This means that very often the best way to protect your online reputation is to prevent a complaint or negative review from being posted in the first place.

Large vs. Small Businesses

Customer complaints and bad reviews can be a persistent and aggravating problem for small businesses. Yet large corporations often have millions of dollars to devote to marketing, advertising and public relations, and the sheer number of customers and clients that patronize them are orders of magnitude higher. This means that when an unsatisfied customer or client posts a complaint or bad review, it often joins hundreds or even thousands of other reviews by other customers, both positive and negative, and often becomes lost in the online “noise”.

Complaints Can Bring You Down

Even if a significant complaint gains traction with prominent bloggers, social media personalities and even the news, large corporations have teams of PR professionals who can expertly deal with the negative fallout. A small business has few resources, no dedicated teams of PR professionals, and worse, a single negative complaint or review can do significantly more damage – when there are few reviews online for a business, a negative review can appear very prominently on websites such as Yelp or Google’s My Business profiles. Even worse, when a review site uses a rating system (think one to five stars), a single negative review can drop an excellent or good rating down to average or even poor!

What Can A Small Business Do?

There is very little a small business can do to retroactively deal with an online complaint or negative review, especially when it is posted to a third-party site or service. The First Amendment protects consumer speech online, and third-party websites will often only remove complaints and reviews if they are clearly violating the law, usually by posting obviously libelous or harassing content or by making threats. Instead, small businesses must do everything possible to not only prevent complaints and negative reviews from being posted in the first place, but to also promote positive customer testimonials and reviews, which can act as a counterbalance to complaints and bad reviews.

Do Not Ignore Your Messages

It is absolutely imperative that small businesses keep as many lines of communication open with customers and clients as possible. Although complaints and negative reviews can sometimes appear to be malicious to small business owners, the majority of unsatisfied customers complain online as a last resort, often after they feel their concerns or complaints have been ignored or disregarded. Yet owners and managers of small businesses simply cannot ignore or disregard customer calls, emails and other electronic messages. If you have an email address or contact form on your website, you cannot ignore messages that are sent to your business; this is also true of your social media accounts. If you have the time and resources, it is also a good idea to proactively contact customers – sometimes a simple phone call after an order or job has been completed can identify an unsatisfied customer, which in turn will prevent that customer from airing their grievances online.

Accommodating Unsatisfied Customers

Small business owners and managers must counter-weigh the costs of refusing to satisfy a customer, even one you may believe is being unreasonable, with the costs of dealing with a complaint or negative review online. The reality is that every customer now has multiple online platforms to voice complaints, concerns and grievances with a business, and it is to the benefit of every small business owner and manager to do everything reasonably possible to accommodate an unsatisfied customer.

Let Satisfied Customers Help You

It is an unfortunate reality that even the best and most proactive customer service policies cannot stop all online customer complaints and negative reviews. Sometimes unsatisfied customers “fall through the cracks”, while other times customers and clients simply cannot be reasonably satisfied. There have even been proven instances of a competing business posing as an unsatisfied customer and posting negative complaints and reviews. When this happens, aside from issuing a follow-up, the best way to counter the negative effects of these actions is to encourage your satisfied customers to post positive testimonials and reviews online. The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 allows you to legally contact customers by email within a certain window of time following a business transaction, so you can also send follow-up emails to customers and clients inquiring about their satisfaction and encouraging them to leave a positive testimonial or review online. However, it is never a good idea to offer incentives specifically for positive feedback – instead, you can offer an incentive for simply leaving feedback, and attempt to ensure through other methods that any outstanding customer service issues have been resolved beforehand.