You’re the marketing head for a new startup in New York City. Or maybe you’re the owner of a small Iowa-based chain of bookstores that have been around for the past thirty years. Perhaps you’re intimately familiar with online reviews on sites like Yelp, Google, and Facebook. Or it’s possible the only reviews you’ve dealt with have been slips of paper in a suggestion box. Either way, staying on top of your online reviews can make a world of difference to your business. After all, it’s 2014—those reviews are piling up online somewhere whether you’re looking or not.

In this age, online reviews are a double-edged sword. They can be some of the most beneficial influences to your continued growth, but they can also serve as red flags to increasingly tech-savvy consumers (who check reviews before trying out) that they should stay away. If you aren’t already on a reviewing site, learning to master this process takes the guesswork out of post-purchase customer interactions.

Brands truly are like people—whether a restaurant, a sports apparel store, or a chocolate-of-the-month mailer. Building relationships and new friendships is key. Regularly perusing your reviews and engaging with reviewers is a crucial step to growing your business or simply refining it, whether it’s been around for two months or twenty years.

For new businesses, crafting a strong online presence is paramount for longevity in today’s economy. But while many entrepreneurs are quick to join Facebook, Twitter, or Google+, they often neglect the opportunity to engage customers through online reviews. Despite all the effort you put into your product or service, the most important opinion comes from the college student or single mother who arrives at your door or homepage. There is a reason for the adage, “The customer is always right.” They may not always be “right”—but they always matter.

For small businesses that have been around awhile, incorporating a routine process of checking, analyzing, and responding to reviews when necessary can be the first step to improving or even expanding your business. Whether comments about a certain product or a proposal for a new flavor, by actively listening for negative or positive comments, you can refine the already successful parts of your business and show your loyal customers what their opinions mean to you.

Most online reviews allow customers to explain the details of their experience, and what you did or did not do very well. These sites provide efficient and effective ways of receiving feedback, and reaching out to reviewers go a long way to mend even a very damaged relationship. Because even a small cut with a dissatisfied customer can fester and opinions can spread.

So treat it at the source, and right away. Keep track, and if there is ever an issue—or isn’t—thank them for their feedback and always strive to do better. After all, most online customer reviews are really about expressing their frustration or positivity. Listening and responding can mean the world to them—and help show why you really are the place for their continued business.

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