KENTUCKY — Online retailer comment sections and review sites have become very popular over the last half decade.

More and more consumers now rely heavily on product and business reviews to inform their decisions and purchases. Some consumers may scan individual product reviews prior to purchasing a big-ticket item, while others may visit review sites to find the right restaurant.

Savvy business owners recognize the influence that such reviews can have on their businesses. For example, a 2011 study of, an online business review sit that allows users to comment on and rate businesses employing a five-star rating system (five being the highest rating a business can receive), from researchers at Harvard University found that a one-star increase among reviews of Seattle restaurants led to a growth in revenue between 5 and 9 percent. Yelp reports it had an average of approximately 132 million monthly unique visitors in the first fiscal quarter of 2014, and those figures illustrate just how much consumers have grown to rely on review sites to inform their purchases.

As the Harvard study indicated, positive reviews can dramatically improve a business owner's bottom line. But what about negative reviews? The best way to address negative reviews is to cater to customers' needs in such a way that no such reviews are ever written. But issues, including negative reviews, are bound to arise, and business owners who work long hours may find it difficult to reconcile poor reviews of a company they put their heart and soul into. That compels some to overreact to negative reviews or immediately go on the defensive. But there are more productive ways to address negative online reviews and even turn them into a positive experience for all parties involved.

Pay attention to your online reputation. In recognition of the influence online review sites wield, many larger companies employ brand management professionals or firms whose job includes monitoring review sites and investigating and, in some cases, rectifying negative reviews. Small business owners can take the same approach, even if it means monitoring such sites on their own. Routinely scan popular review sites in an attempt to manage your online reputation. Such monitoring can not only shed light on any disgruntled customers but also provide insight to business owners with regards to which aspects of their businesses are most popular among their customers and which may need more work.

Investigate any issues. Many people take to the Internet, and review sites in particular, just to vent. But that does not mean business owners should ignore bad reviews as isolated incidents with customers looking to start trouble. Do your best to investigate any poor reviews (and, if you have the time, thank those reviewers who have left glowing reviews), first conducting an internal investigation of an incident with your employees before contacting customers to reassure them that you are addressing their concerns. When speaking with customers, express your willingness to compromise and your desire to make the situation better. Customers appreciate such gestures, and many will likely edit an existing review to reflect your positive response to their initial critique.

Respond to the review publicly. If the issue has been addressed and the customer has been satisfied but has not changed their initial review, you might want to issue a public response to their review, admitting that there was an issue but it has since been rectified and that you were more than willing and happy to address the problem.

But not all issues can be resolved. If your investigation of the issue found that the initial review contained inaccuracies and these inaccuracies prevented you from rectifying the situation with the customer, you can then write a brief response to the review that corrects the inaccuracies. Keep this type of response short and sweet, as you don't want potential customers to see your response as hostile.

Encourage additional reviews. A savvy business owner won't shy away from review sites but rather embrace them for the opportunities they present. Positive word-of-mouth has long been a friend to business owners, and online review sites facilitate this way of sharing positive experiences of a business. Encourage your customers to write online reviews of their experiences with your business. This can offset negative reviews, help to steer future customers to your business and provide some valuable insight into how customers view your business. Include links to your page on review sites on your website or send emails encouraging customers to provide feedback. Many customers will be happy to provide such feedback and be glad to hear that you want to hear from them.

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