The next customer who posts an online review of your business may not be a customer at all. In fact, it may not be a person. With the news that researchers have developed artificial intelligence software that can write believable fake reviews, it could get more difficult for entrepreneurs to manage their companies' online reputations and separate real customers from chatbots.

There's no doubt that fake reviews are a huge challenge for ecommerce giants like Amazon and Alibaba, costing them revenue and threatening the integrity of their platforms. The reliability of reviews is essential for small companies and their customers as well: 84 percent of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations.

Spotting fake reviews is easier said than done, however--and may be more treacherous than it's worth. If a real customer posts a negative review of an unhappy experience with your business, and you incorrectly accuse the reviewer of being fraudulent, the hit to your company's reputation will go from bad to much, much worse.

In the absence of certainty, how should a small business owner deal with a review they suspect of being fake? As with other areas of managing your online reputation, the answer is that your best defense is a good offense. Here are three ways you can take control of good reviews and defuse the bad ones--whether they come from real customers or artificial ones.

1. Solicit More Reviews from Happy Customers

The occasional bad review may be inevitable, but you can diminish its impact by overwhelming the negative feedback with lots of positive feedback. According to one survey, 74 percent of consumers say that positive reviews make them trust a local business more. It's truly the new word-of-mouth, and you can influence the conversation.

Asking your satisfied customers to review your business on Google, Facebook and other platforms should be regular part of your outreach. You can include this request on social media, in person, via email newsletters, and with invoices and other post-purchase touchpoints, pointing out how much customer feedback means to you and helps your business.

This effort should be continuous; even the best reviews lose their power if they collect dust. Reviews that are older than three months are not relevant, according to 73 percent of consumers.

2. Respond Quickly to All Reviews, Good and Bad

Much like social media and other digital marketing channels, you should approach online reviews like a conversation--don't just listen, respond to customers. Your quick reply to all reviews demonstrates that you're an active, engaged business owner. You should thank positive reviewers for their feedback, and publically note that you will be working to address any concerns mentioned in negative reviews.

This requires creating a strategy to monitor and manage your company's presence on review sites. Make sure that you receive alerts whenever your company is reviewed, along with a Google alert for other mentions of your business name.

A rapid response is essential, especially for negative reviews. Often, unhappy customers feel overlooked or that their concern is not being taken seriously; taking too long to respond, and letting them stew in their frustration, can only make things worse.

3. Don't Lose Your Cool with Negative Reviewers

A bad review can sting. It can feel like a very public rebuke for what might have been a rare mistake on your part--or a misunderstanding on the customer's part. But this is definitely the time to swallow your pride and offer a sincere, contrite reply.

Whatever you do, don't get defensive and never argue with your customer on a public website. Even if you didn't do anything wrong, you should try to address their dissatisfaction. You might be able to turn around the unhappy customer and earn back their business. But if not, at least everyone else will be impressed with your customer service. Remember, your reply is just as visible as the original review.

In the end, this is why it may not matter whether an online review is fake or real, or whether the reviewer is human or a chatbot: Other (real) customers are going to see the review, and judge your business, in part, based on your response. Despite any suspicions you may have, you want to defuse criticism and demonstrate great customer service at every opportunity.

Published on: Sep 14, 2017