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chris griffiths

When you get a compliment from a customer, you wish the world could know. When you get a complaint, you wish for a one-on-one chance to make it right so word doesn't spread.

The Internet provides public access to all kinds of both good and bad customer feedback, and you need to manage those reviews and comments, whether you consider your business online or not.

As you know, your business no longer needs to have a website to be online. Profiles, reviews and comments about your company, products and service can be posted without your permission or knowledge. I'm afraid proactively managing your online reputation is hereby added to the to-do list for you or a delegate.

Any site that allows the public to post comments opens the door for them to post about your business. While there are too many sites to mine every day, some obvious ones such as Yelp, Google Places for Business, Yahoo! Local Listings and Angies List quickly come to mind.

The problem with a bad online review, of course, is that it can stay on the Internet forever and influence countless existing or potential customers. Without a public response from you, the objectivity is gone – just reports of bad experiences, even if they are unusual for your business' overall customer satisfaction – remain, forever.

I like to use online reviews as part of a process to vet a new supplier both personally and professionally. Some reviews I take with a grain of salt, but if I see a trend of seemingly objective reviews, I typically accept that trend as the truth.

Most importantly, however, I look for how the business responds, and a lack of response speaks volumes – not in a good way.

To enhance my knowledge, I decided to call upon someone who lives and breathes online reputation management: Crystal Henrickson, marketing director for Yelp Canada. I asked her to advise how small business owners should take a proactive role in managing their online reputations, factoring in that an entrepreneur's time is so limited.

"The best use of your time can be spent taking ownership of your profile. This applies not just to Yelp but other review and comment sites as well," she said.

"Any business owner or user can add a business listing to Yelp and Yelp offers business owners a free suite of tools  to help them populate the profile with their current hours of business, contact information, product and service offering and other data they want the public to know. Once that's done, you will automatically be alerted by e-mail when someone comments or reviews your business. These tools also allow business owners to publicly or privately respond to any of their reviews."

I decided to try it. I had my personal log-in profile built in 76 seconds, and it took an additional 141 seconds to build a basic profile for my business. That was easy.

Next, "respond to all legitimate reviews and comments, both good and bad," she advised.

Sure, you might get irresponsible and illegitimate reviews and comments now and then, which sites such as Yelp work hard to filter. Those types of comments probably need to be ignored, otherwise you'll be "feeding the trolls" (my words, not hers).

Beyond those kinds of comments, you should value the chance to interact with your customers. They took the time to share their experience; you need to acknowledge and learn from it.

Why is all of this important? Ms. Henrickson told me that almost 80 per cent of regular Internet users consult the Web before making a purchase decision, and these users typically look for objective third-party opinions before buying – whether you have a website or not.

More important, about 45 per cent of all searches on Yelp came from their mobile apps.

Why is mobile more important? That's because mobile users are typically in the middle of the purchase decision-making process – not just researching, but ready to buy – when they search. That means the outcome could have an immediate effect on your business.

If someone walked into your business and started to complain about a transaction, I bet you'd stop what you were doing and get to the bottom of it.

You need to do that online too. Even more so, as thousands of eyeballs could be tuning in.

Equally, if someone went out of his or her way to return to your business to compliment a job well done, you'd want to acknowledge that customer's effort and loyalty as well.

Now, all of that is a daily opportunity online. Don't miss it.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Chris Griffiths is the Toronto-based director of fine tune consulting, a boutique management consulting practice. Over the past 20 years, he has started or acquired and sold seven businesses.

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