If you own a small business, you’re probably very aware that disgruntled customers vent their displeasure on websites such as Yelp, Angie’s List and ­TripAdvisor. What to do…

1. Respond—but not immediately. If you post a response immediately after reading an online consumer complaint about your business, your reply is more likely to be defensive or angry. This won’t just annoy the complainer, it could scare away other potential customers. It’s better to let your initial emotional reaction abate before responding.

2. When you do respond, acknowledge the validity of the complainer’s feelings, even if your business was not at fault. This makes you seem like a calm, reasonable person who cares about his/her customers. It also lets the complainer know that he/she has been heard, which typically is what complainers want most.

Examples: “I’m sorry your experience with us did not go as you had hoped”…or (if the complaint is justified) “We messed up.”

3. Offer a solution. If you will take a concrete step in response to a complaint or can offer something to the customer, note this. You might write, “I shared your message with my entire staff to make sure that everyone knows not to do this in the future”…or “Please call me. We stand by our work. I’ll send a service tech out to fix this.” A few variations…

If a negative review lacks specificity or the complainer seems unhinged, the ­solution you offer could be, “I’d appreciate it if you would contact me with additional details so that we can get to the bottom of this and try to make it right.”

If you suspect the complainer is being dishonest, do not come right out and say this—you risk appearing childish if you get sucked into a he said/she said online spat. Instead, write something noncommittal such as, “That certainly is not the way we usually handle things here.” ­Politely ask the complainer to supply dates and times or other details so that you can ­investigate the accusation.

4. Scan positive reviews for complaints. Sometimes business owners overlook rave reviews that include minor complaints, as in, “I love this company, but I do wish that it would change this one thing…” But it is particularly important to respond promptly to these “positive complaints.” Unlike many complaints, these are posted by reasonable people who want to be loyal customers. Moreover, people who read this online review will put particular weight on its complaint because the person who wrote about it seems so evenhanded. Thank the reviewer for his praise, apologize for the problem, then offer a ­solution.

5. Solicit additional reviews to balance out the negative ones. The more positive reviews there are of your business on the site, the less one or two negative reviews will hurt you. Keep in mind, though, that research has shown that having a small number of bad reviews on your site among many good ones actually helps—when reviews are uniformly positive, readers tend not to trust that they are real.

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