Is there anything scarier or more upsetting than getting a one-star review online where everyone can see it? Maybe not. But having no online reviews can be just as damaging to your small business.

According to BrightLocal’s Local Consumer Review Survey, 84% of people trust online reviews as much as a personal recommendation. Clearly, online reviews are the new word-of-mouth marketing. But according to a recent Manta poll, 58% of small business owners don’t ask customers to review their business online, and 33% never respond to negative reviews.

This is a lost opportunity. Online reviews are can be a powerful marketing tool for local businesses. It’s a free way to showcase praise from your most loyal customers, and as the stats above show, online reviews go a long way to persuading new customers to do business with you. But you can only reap these benefits if you’re proactive about asking for and responding to feedback, both positive and negative.

If that sound intimidating, don’t panic. By making a plan and using the right tools, you can manage your online reviews without too much effort.

How to Track Reviews

The first hurdle is knowing where and when people post reviews of your business. There are dozens of review sites, many focused on niche industries. You should begin by starting accounts on the sites that are most relevant to your business. Google and Facebook are important for everyone. In addition, you might need to pay attention to the following sites, depending on your industry:

  • Angie’s List (contractors)
  • HomeAdvisor (contractors)
  • Kudzu (contractors)
  • Yelp (restaurants and retail)
  • OpenTable (restaurants)
  • TripAdvisor (travel and hospitality)
  • Healthgrades (medical)
  • RateMDs (medical)
  • Avvo (lawyers)

On many of these sites, if you register you can get notifications when someone leaves a review of your business. But just to make sure you have all your bases covered, you should also set up Google Alerts, a free service that will let you know when certain keywords are mentioned online. Plug in your business name and any other important keywords to get email updates. Social Mention is another service that will alert you when your business is mentioned online.

How to Ask for Reviews

Of course, you may find that many customers aren’t bothering to go online and review your business. But that doesn’t have to be the end of the story! You can ask satisfied customers to leave a review. A polite request, along with a quick explanation of how it helps your business, is all the motivation some customers need.

There are some do’s and don’ts. First, go in with a plan. When will you make the request? Right after a purchase, or later in a follow-up email? Second, printing out cards with instructions and a link to the site where you’d like them to leave the review will save you (and your customers) time and energy. Lastly, don’t try to push them to leave a positive review. Just say that their honest feedback helps you improve your business.

One caveat: Yelp strongly discourages business owners from asking for reviews. It’s best to tread carefully, to avoid getting penalized by the review platform. Many owners instead encourage customers to visit their Yelp page, hoping they will leave a review while they’re there.

How to Respond to Reviews

There’s one final yet crucial step to any good review management strategy: responding to reviews, especially bad ones. Most customers vent their frustrations online when they feel ignored by the business. Ignoring that unhappy customer only makes things worse!

Instead of getting upset, try to look at it as an opportunity for your customer service to shine. Respond calmly and apologize, and then offer to fix the customer’s problem. If you can get them on the phone, even better. If you do end up resolving the issue, ask the customer if they would consider revising the nasty review. If you can’t, at least your public response will show others that you’re a responsive, responsible business owner.

If you receive more than the occasional bad review, you may want to stop and reevaluate. Are there patterns in the reviews? Does your customer service need improvement? Is your contact info easy to find, so that you can divert complaints to less public channels like phone and email? Answering these questions should help you reduce the poor feedback.

Lastly, don’t forget to respond to positive reviews as well! Again, it shows that you’re an engaged, caring business owner when you thank customers for taking the time to go online and leave a good review of your business.