What are your customers saying about you online? If you're not paying attention, your reputation could be suffering.

Has your company been yelped? Yelp.com and other sites like it capture consumer reviews about firms of all kinds -- from painters and pet sitters to restaurants and railways.

Yelp affects business. A month before I moved across town, I hired a moving company -- a name you'd recognize. I'd used it in the past with neutral results, but not bad enough to look elsewhere. About two weeks before the move, I searched online for its number so I could call to confirm my reservation. I found the number, and guess what else popped up in the first few Google search results? Negative yelp, from bad to worse.

I rang the company, mostly for reassurance that it had addressed the problems that led to the issues I read about online. Not only did I NOT get reassurance, but the phone operator was so rude that I cancelled my reservation right then. I wound up using a regional firm with abundant customer kudos and a mostly positive yelp.

The first movers lost prospective revenue based on its online reputation, which was reinforced by the way it handled customer concerns and ran its business. The entire experience got me thinking -- how do companies respond to customer yelp? What is inherently different about companies with overwhelmingly negative versus positive yelp? Are companies with positive yelp better-run companies?

A short experiment shed light on the matter; I'll share the results and insights over the next several months. One thing I quickly concluded -- companies fall into one of three categories based on how they react to customer yelp:

* The Blind are unaware of their online reputation or don't care.
* Plumbers stay tuned to what customers say online and make one-off defense attempts when comments are really bad, but most of the time they do nothing.
* Gold Diggers treat yelp as the proverbial canary in the market coal mine; they drive business with the goal of positive yelp.

I know you care about what your customers say. I know you want to have a positive reputation that helps to grow your business. So let's talk about how you can strengthen your reputation.

1. Make it someone's ritual. Negative word of mouth deteriorates your online presence and erodes your brand. What you can't see could stall growth. Someone in your company should regularly review online destinations and assess what your reputation looks like out there -- who's saying what, where and why?
2. Make counter-yelping a CEO priority. I met the president of a local floral company that suffered a public setback two years ago. She now spends two to four hours every week responding to online customer feedback and working specific issues internally.
3. Don't point fingers. It's easy to get defensive and assign blame when something goes wrong and gets out. Seek first to understand the situation. Talk to positive yelpers as well and bring the commentary into the company with an eye on solutions.
4. Start situational, end abstract. When uncovering the "whys" of negative customer experiences, find out what went smoothly and what broke down within your company. After several of its customers were under-serviced, one janitorial company said this: "We will no longer submit rush bids in competitive situations if it means we compromise our process for carefully evaluating an opportunity and understanding how the customer defines success."
5. Update team values. Make sure employees know that a positive customer experience has the power to drive revenues and their compensation. Train employees to manage through and escalate tough customer issues before they turn into online fodder.

Read part two to find out what the leaders of companies with overwhelming positive yelp know that others don't.