Opening up your business to online scrutiny feels like under-dressing for harsh winter weather –  you’re not always prepared for the bitterness, and it can sting.

Your business is both your passion and livelihood, something you’ve worked hard to create. The thought of a customer having anything but a positive experience with your brand seems bad enough. It’s even more daunting when the customer can easily post a scathing review where other prospective clients are sure to see it.

But if you position yourself to not only manage but also leverage customer reviews, it will build trust for your business, provide what essentially amounts to free word-of-mouth marketing, and help you gain a clear view of your brand from the outside.

The importance of customer reviews cannot be ignored, so let’s look at why they matter and how you can manage them.

Why Customer Reviews Matter

Influence on the Buyer’s Journey

You can shine up your website, logo, advertisements, and branding, but customers today base their purchases largely on reviews that appear to be honest and organic. According to YouGov, the majority of Americans (77 percent) check out the review section before making a purchasing decision.

And this makes sense; with the advent of online shopping came the need to verify that the item you’re purchasing without having seen or touched is one of quality and that the manufacturer or vendor has the integrity to address legitimate issues appropriately. This is especially true in the technology world, where people must make expensive decisions that will affect the very way they communicate with others or the fabric of their business functions. That’s why there are over 107,000 software reviews on TrustRadius despite the availability of 14-day trials for most software; no one blindly trusts advertising, and they’re not going to make a big decision without listening to word on the street. Online reviews offer the social proof that your word alone simply can’t offer.

Impact on Local SEO

Can you say “free advertising?” The importance of customer reviews is greater than most realize. These online reviews can actually help boost your local search engine optimization (SEO). If you’re not familiar with local SEO, it’s a marketing strategy that focuses on connecting customers currently in your area to your business by pushing you to a higher ranking on search engines. Quality and quantity of reviews impact your local SEO, which is why online reviews are downright essential for most local businesses.

Ideally, if you are an outdoor retailer, you want to be one of the top results that appear when someone types in “outdoor retailer” or “sporting goods store.” The retailer that has the best and most reviews are shooting straight to the top.

Accountability and Excellence

This is the hard, not-fun part. You actually have to absorb the bad reviews and try to glean something useful from them. Even though it’s tempting to ignore negativity, especially vitriolic, over-the-top negativity, there may be a kernel of truth to even the most savage critique. Ignoring criticism could be a grave mistake – and even leads some businesses to close their doors for good.

While you may fear the trolls out there who seem to get joy out of dragging your business’s name through the mud, you’ll more often encounter customers who just want to be heard and acknowledged or to have an honest mistake corrected. The honest feedback in reviews often couldn’t be scraped up with a thousand surveys – it’s useful because it’s unsolicited and therefore unbiased. The only way to improve your business and make it fulfill its full potential is to listen to those who aren’t behind the scenes rooting for it.

Now that you know why reviews (both good and bad) present important growth opportunities, we’ll spend the rest of this article discussing how best to actually approach them, and how to get ahead of the negativity before it strikes you down.

Managing Your Online Reviews

Claim Your Business Listings

In order to get involved with customer reviews, you actually have to be present on social networking sites, review sites, and directories. Do this by claiming your business listings on popular sites like Yelp, Foursquare, Google + Local, etc. You may not have control over what reviewers write, but creating a profile does give you control over the basic information and branding that appears on these sites.

Review and socials sites are where slews of customers go for important information such as hours, location, and services. It can be deeply frustrating committing to visit a business across town only to find that the hours listed online are inaccurate. Even without reading a single review or walking into your store, a prospective customer can develop a negative view of your brand simply by being given the wrong information or too little information.

Beyond claiming your profiles on popular sites, you can create a page on your website that’s a hub for customer reviews. This allows you to tailor the information fields to what you’d like to know by asking specific questions. While most review sites boil down to star ratings and long descriptions of the customer experience, you can target certain information that’s helpful to you on your own site. Use it as a chance to find out how your customer service reps are performing by having your customers rate their service experience. Inviting reviews on your own website gives you a chance to quickly respond and make things right.

Incentivize Interaction, Not Reviews

Incentivizing reviews can come off as a bit sleazy, and some review sites don’t allow it. But you can still get your customers involved online by, for instance, offering a reward for checking in at your place of business on social media. You can feel free to ask outright for reviews or send a follow-up email with a review request post-purchase. The most important element here is the relationship you’re building with your customers, not a tit-for-tat arrangement that may end up looking fishy to new prospects.

Respond to Customers

You can’t just let your reviews roam around off-leash, snapping and scaring away would-be clients. At the very least, it’s important to attempt to respectfully address every problem. Sometimes all it takes is a genuine apology and willingness to make things right to motivate someone to change their negative review. And in the process, you’ll get to see all the glowing things customers have to say about your business!