Since most small-business owners are justifiably proud of the service they deliver, they don't even anticipate a negative online review or threat to their reputation, until it happens. Unfortunately, trying to recover after the fact is tough.

The best way to protect your reputation online is to solicit good reviews proactively, so an occasional negative one will be discounted as an exception.

Even worse, many entrepreneurs don't take the time to monitor what people are saying about them to others. Even more importantly, owners have no idea how to respond appropriately, or get the offending comments removed.

If you find yourself and your business in one of these categories, it's time to heed the steps I recommend to every business client today:

1. Ask for a good review from every satisfied customer.

Not only is this a good way to test your own perception, it's the best way to get a positive base built, before that one angry or unfair customer puts your entire business at risk.

Customers these days expect to get asked, and often need that little extra push to put a testimonial on your website.

For example, if your business is landscaping, it's well worth your time as the owner to make one last call on every customer a week after completion to check their satisfaction, clear up any oversights, ask for a testimonial, and probably get some follow-on work.

2. Regularly review every customer comment, and reply.

Of course, you can't monitor the entire internet yourself, but fortunately there are many tools and platforms out there to do it for you, such as Google Alerts and Hootsuite Insights.

If you don't have the time yourself, this process should be high on the priority list of your marketing team.

If you never respond to comments, customers will quickly assume you don't really care. Just thank them for their feedback and try not to be defensive. If necessary, simply apologize for the problem and provide specifics to assure it won't happen again.

3. Commit to turning a negative experience into a positive.

Often, a perceived negative can be turned into a positive by offering a free return visit or a free replacement.

Don't let the negative message get amplified by others due to a lack of response or declaring that the issue was not a problem. When fixed, don't be afraid to ask for a positive review.

On the internet, you can find good examples of how to handle bad customer reviews, as well as examples of ones handled poorly. Don't repeat the "United Breaks Guitars" experience on what not to do--it reportedly United cost over a billion dollars in lost business.

4. Let negative reviews get lost among glowing comments.

We all know that you can't satisfy everyone, but make sure the numbers speak for themselves in making negative reports be the exception, rather than the norm.  

This is why you must start soliciting positive reviews early, so that your first negative one won't be the only thing found by others.

5. Actively work to remove inappropriate and inaccurate data.

It's not entirely true that once something is on the internet it can never be removed.

You can easily remove any inappropriate comments from your own sites, and you can cancel or delete your account on most social-media sites. Some industry sites will remove comments at your request.

For other sites, experts, such as ReputationDefender, have proprietary techniques to correct or completely remove offensive content. In addition, every business has the obligation to defend its reputation, as well as intellectual property, through legal action.

6. Communicate often about your values and quality initiatives.

Don't be afraid to blow your own horn about all the things you are doing to make your customers' experience a better one, and how important that image is to you. If possible, extend your message to what you are doing to improve the environment, social issues, or other higher purpose.

Customers these days assign a higher reputation by default to companies that highlight their higher purpose, such as Zappos and Patagonia, which have benefited greatly from their support of social and environmental charities.

In summary, it's important to remember that online reviews can make or break your business today, so you can't afford to be too busy to monitor and manage this activity.

Don't count on the government or internet providers to protect your online reputation--that is your responsibility. In the end, giving Google something positive to remember is always easier than asking it to forget.

Published on: Sep 18, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.