Whether it's your first or your thousandth, a negative online review can feel like a sucker punch. And the worst part? Unless the review is obviously spammy, removing it will be virtually impossible.

So, where does this leave you? Ignoring it isn't going to make it go away; in fact, not responding is likely to damage your reputation even more.

If you're struggling with how to approach some bad online reviews, this post should help. Take a deep breath, then work your way through the 8 steps below to get your reputation back on track.

1. Build up good reviews to dilute the bad

This is quite possibly the most important thing you can do to improve your reputation online. While you may have no control over the feedback that gets left on review sites, you can work to dilute those bad reviews through building up positive ones.

Be careful though: soliciting reviews is prohibited on most sites. Yelp, for instance, asks business owners to refrain from asking for reviews outright. Instead, they encourage you to make comments like "Check us out on Yelp!" or to place a Yelp badge on your website or marketing materials.

Some ways to ethically encourage positive reviews include:

2. Ask yourself: Do I need to fix something here?

Obvious, right? But if you're hurt or angry it can be easy to immediately go on the defensive instead. When you get a negative review, ask yourself:

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Take a moment to honestly evaluate your business in light of the criticism. Take the attitude of LeBron James: "I like criticism. It makes you strong."

3. Respond. Always respond.

Good or bad, you should be responding to every review left for your business. Remember that the impact goes far beyond how that particular customer feels about you (although this is certainly important too).

While only a handful of customers might leave reviews, dozens or even hundreds are scrolling through the reviews. Not responding to negative reviews sends 2 possible messages:

No matter what, always respond. Make sure your voice is heard as an active advocate, not only for your customers but for your business as well.

4. Dilute negative reviews in the SERPs

I already mentioned diluting negative reviews by building up positive ones. But what if you just can't seem to garner enough positive reviews to make a difference?

If you've been focusing on encouraging positive reviews on one particular review site, it might be time to shift your efforts elsewhere.

Google your business, and see which other review sites pop up. Focus on building up positive reviews on these other sites to dilute the negative reviews in the search engine results (SERPs). Even if you can't redeem your reputation on one site, at least people who google your business will see a more balanced picture of your business overall. Focus on building your brand up overall.

5. Don't allow free shots

This goes hand in hand with always responding to reviews. A few years ago, Walmart made the decision to consistently respond to complaints on social media. Prior to this, they had let most comments slide, essentially giving their critics "free shots."

The reason for this shift? According to Chat Mitchell, senior director of digital communications, it was all about engagement and public dialogue: "Best case scenario, we're able to engage, share some content and change hearts and minds...Worst case, we're able to have an open dialogue and then move on, agreeing to disagree."

Whether your critics are active on social media or on review sites like Google My Business or Angie's List, don't allow free shots. Always be respectful, but don't lay down and let criticism go unattended.

6. Take your critics offline ASAP

While you should be responding to every review, that doesn't mean you need to get into the dirty details. Keep your response brief, avoid discussing specifics, and move the conversation offline ASAP.

Respond with a sincere apology and a request to get in touch via email or phone. For instance, "We are so sorry to hear you had such a bad experience at our establishment. Please reach out to us at so we can discuss this further."

Be sure to include contact info with your response - the more specific the better (e.g., "Give us a call and ask for Frank"). If you don't include your contact information, your response can end up looking inauthentic.

7. DON'T use canned responses

Honestly, if you're going to cut and paste all your responses, you might as well not respond at all. Looking through Trip Advisor recently, I found a particular hotel was giving identical responses to each and every reviewer. Sure, they did have a different response for negative reviews versus positive ones, but the whole thing still left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

Dissatisfied customers want to know you take their concerns seriously. A boilerplate response says you don't actually care, and that you're just responding for the sake of optics.

Responding authentically means responding to the individual. While the content of your responses will inevitably be similar at times, resist the urge to save time by pasting in standard responses.

8. Turn the situation around

Keep in mind that when handled correctly, people who complain the loudest can potentially become your most vocal fans and advocates.

When responding to complaints and negative feedback, go in with the attitude that there is something to salvage here. Instead of writing off all negative reviewers as unreasonable, do your best to satisfy them and turn them into a repeat customer.

Of course, sometimes this just isn't possible. In those situations, remember that a respectful and generously-worded public response can actually make you look better, while at the same time discrediting the reviewer.

Conclusion

Negative reviews can feel lousy, but they aren't the end of the world. Believe me, I know! If you're providing a great product or service and take customer service seriously, a few negative reviews shouldn't do irreparable harm to your business.

On the other hand, if you find that negative reviews are consistently outnumbering the good, your issue is probably less reputation management and more business improvement. Fix what's broken in your business, and then deal with fixing your reputation.

What strategies do you use to fix or dilute negative online reviews? Share with us below!

Published on: Feb 22, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.