Online reviews can make or break your business.

If you don’t believe me, consider this: 88 percent of U.S. consumers read reviews posted on sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, Google, and Facebook in order to determine whether a local business is good or not. Moreover, 74 percent read anywhere between 2 to 10 online reviews before making a purchase decision. Reviews also inspire twice as much trust as social media likes, tweets, or follower counts; and, 4 out of 5 times, a consumer will reverse a purchase decision after reading a negative online review.

For any business owner, it can be a scary thought that reviews can so significantly affect one’s reputation. But responding to a review can be equally powerful. A response to a bad review can protect online business reputation and minimize the review’s negative impact, while a response to a five-star review can reinforce customer satisfaction and drive positive word of mouth.

Looking for ways to respond effectively to online customer reviews? Here are some tips and tricks to help you get started.

1. Claim your business listings and pages. Identify the review sites that are most relevant to your business (TripAdvisor for hotels, say, or OpenTable and Yelp for restaurants) and plant your flags in these places by claiming your business listings and pages. It’s free of charge on most major review sites; typically, once your listing has been verified, you’ll have the ability to take control and post responses to your reviews.

2. Say thank you. It doesn’t matter whether the review is positive or negative. Say thank you anyway. By expressing your gratitude, you can show the reviewer--as well as potential and existing customers--that your business values candid feedback, and that it cares enough about customers to listen to whatever they have to say. 

3. Avoid knee-jerk reactions. Online criticism can feel like a punch in the gut, and it’s easy to lose your temper after receiving unreasonably low ratings and negative reviews. But don’t let your emotions get in the way of writing a polite, professional, and patient response. Many frustrated business owners resort to name-calling, which does nothing but further damage reputation and drive potential customers away.    

4. Respond consistently. According to travel review site TripAdvisor, businesses that respond to reviews enjoy 17 percent higher levels of engagement--and are 21 percent more likely to receive a booking inquiry--than those who don’t respond. This just goes to show that the more engaged you are, the more interested your customers become.

5. Avoid generic responses. Using generic templates to craft your review response won’t do your business reputation any good. It’s better to take the time to write responses that are thoughtful, personal, and humanized. As a technique, savvy business owners often use first names--“Dear Christie, we’re so glad you loved our pumpkin pies!” or “Hey Jane, I’m Jonathan and I’m sorry that your appetizers took some time to arrive.” 

6. Be humble enough to say sorry. Sometimes you’ll find that negative reviews are the reasonable result of a negative customer experience. If your business is indeed the wrong, don’t be reluctant to say sorry. Avoid getting into an online catfight and resist the urge to have the last say. Being honest with yourself about how your business performs is often the first step to changing the conversation with your customers, and changing it for the better.

7. Solve the problem. The most effective responses to online reviews are the ones that specifically address the cause of the reviewer’s dissatisfaction. Even better are those that provide reassurance that management is already working on it. Commit to providing a better experience next time, and express that commitment by writing simple phrases like “We’re investigating what went wrong and we’re working on making improvements, and we hope you’ll give us a second chance.”