Everything was going well for a while. Sales were up. Profits were up.

Then one day your business started withering away. The phones have gone silent, and your business is in serious trouble. What happened?

Chances are, your online reputation has come under fire.

Everyone is watching

A recent ZenDesk study reports that 90 percent of customers say they let positive online reviews impact their purchasing decisions. And 86 percent decided not to do business with a company because of negative reviews.

I don't know of a single company who can afford to lose 86 percent of their prospects, sight unseen.

Yelp, The Ripoff Report, PissedConsumer.com, TripAdvisor, Google Reviews, Facebook Reviews: There are now more places than ever for customers to share their worst experiences, and 95 percent of them are all too happy to do so. Only 87 percent of the survey respondents said that they will report good experiences. The discussion is harmful enough when it takes place offline. Online, it lives forever, and continues to influence purchasing decisions for weeks, months, even years after the original posting date.

You don't necessarily deserve what you get

Do you believe that a business that gets a bad review deserves what it gets? Not so fast. Most review sites don't have any verification system in place, which means that a person doesn't even have to be a customer in order to post a review. Much has been made of astroturfing, or the posting of false 5 star reviews.

The media covers false negative reviews a lot less, but they happen all the time. Competitors are often the worst culprits, becasue it's a cheap, easy way to steal market share. This behavior is not limited to small business owners. Major corporations have already been caught engaging this behavior: Last year Samsung paid a fine of $340,000 for posting fake negative reviews about competitor HTC.

Businesses that fail to grasp this reality often find themselves caught in the grip of "it can't happen to me" thinking, and are left completely blindsided when it does. While offering stellar customer service and a phenomenal product are both great ways to generate good reviews, they are no shield at all against those who are willing to exploit review sites for their own gain.

Protecting your business means being proactive

Businesses should work on establishing a positive online presence from the day they set up shop. A multipronged plan is necessary.

First, it's important to make friends in the media. Good, old-fashioned PR is still very helpful in the battle to protect your reputation. A major newspaper or magazine site is still going to show up on Google's search results faster than any review site will, and filling up Google's search results with positive stories about your company is the key to proactive reputation management.

Next, you're going to want to fill out your efforts with your own content marketing plan. Blog posts and guest posts are as important to reputation management as they are to your branding efforts. Some might even argue that they serve essentially the same purpose: to build and protect an idea of "who your business is" in the eyes of those who interact with it.

Stay active on social media, too, since that is where 49 percent of your customers will choose to have negative conversations about your business. If you're responsive and savvy you can address these situations before they become a full-fledged reputation crisis.

Finally, you must monitor everything. Google alerts just aren't enough. You need something more powerful, a service that will watch review sites, Google entries, and social media all at once. It's vital to understand the ways in which your brand are being perceived across every channel so that you can address each situation before it gets out of control.

Stay above reproach

All of these methods assume that you're also treating your customers well, avoiding hot political targets, and acting in an ethical fashion that's consistent with your brand or message. If you aren't, your other efforts could backfire--badly. A "firewall of positive Google searches" won't save you if you are dealing with a firestorm of criticism because your company acted badly.

Of course, dealing with your customers is a group effort, and one bad service representative can spoil all of your hard work. So make sure you are hiring and training with reputation management in mind.

What if the review is legitimate?

Some might question the ethics of trying to proactively "bury" legitimate customer complaints. Just remember, 15 years ago customer complaints were private. They were handled by letter, or over the phone. They weren't blasted onto Twitter or Yelp for the entire world to see.

I am not suggesting that you should ignore legitimate customer problems and complaints. You absolutely need to address them from the very moment your monitoring service alerts you to the presence of a problem. You just need to address them directly, preferably by e-mail or over the phone.

If you start going one-on-one with them in public then you're airing dirty laundry. You're inviting everyone to see exactly how you handled the customer, and you're inviting them to comment upon it and criticize it at will. You're also pushing up the SEO results for the page that hosts that negative review. Neither of these are good outcomes. If you can solve the customer's issue away from the public venue, then you may be able to persuade him to change the review later.

It's not a "fix it or forget it" activity

Reputation marketing is a lot like sales and marketing. It's not "fix it or forget it." You must monitor and build your reputation on a consistent basis if you want to protect your business. You also will have to evaluate every other part of your business in light of how any action you take might impact the reputation you've already built. You may not enjoy a world where customers, competitors, and strangers have this much power--but it's the world we've got, and business owners must account for it.