Don’t shoot the messenger: Customer reviews are important marketing tool

For small businesses, word of mouth from satisfied customers has long been vital for generating new business leads. But those passing conversations have now become into permanent fixtures in the online space.
Online reviews are nothing new. They have been a part of our everyday internet usage for the past decade, and there is no doubt they are here to stay. But what started life as something typically associated with service sector sites that enabled customers to review hotels, bars and restaurants has become an essential consideration for businesses from all sectors. 
Whatever your sector, your customers are now sharing their experiences with a wider audience online, and their opinions could be having a significant impact on your business. In a recent report, 53% of consumers revealed that they have decided against making a purchase based on an online recommendation, whilst a similar number indicated that online reviews and ratings influence their buying decisions more than any form of online advertising.
The power of online reviews is clear, and as their influence over people’s spending habits continues to grow, small businesses simply cannot afford to ignore the phenomenon any longer. 
So how can you manage your online presence and make the most of the opportunities that reviews present? 
Build your presence 
Most review sites offer free tools that allow you to upload rich content about your business. So sharpen up your writing skills and put up an engaging business description. Take a few compelling photos that best showcase your business and, in general, create as much relevant content as you can. Remember that more content means more exposure, traffic and ultimately customers. 
Get customers involved 
Your customers are the best advocates of your business, so encourage them to leave reviews if they have had a good experience. Include links to selected review sites on your website, Facebook and Twitter pages to make it as easy as possible for customers to get involved. Or why not incentivise them with offers and discounts if they share their positive experience of your business with others?
Join the conversation
There are simple ways to monitor your reputation online. First and foremost, check your reviews regularly. It is important to engage consistently, and not only if a negative review has been posted. A sincere ‘thank you’ to a good review is a great way to show appreciation. 
Take the rough with the smooth
Businesses should not be scared of downbeat reviews. Responding to negative reviews is of course harder, and it can be difficult to keep emotion out of the equation. But it is also a great opportunity to demonstrate the quality of your customer service and win over potential customers. 
Best foot forward 
It is crucial to remember that any conversation conducted on a review site will be visible to all visitors. So carefully consider your response and utilise the opportunity to demonstrate the quality of customer service and after-sales care your business provides.
Honesty is always the best policy
Avoid posting reviews about your own company, competitors or businesses you have not used. This is a sure-fire way of damaging your online reputation. Consumers are savvy and value a variety of opinions. Gushing, officious or even overly negative reviews may seem suspicious.  
Final thoughts
Above all, make sure that you get involved now and before it is too late. Customer reviews and ratings are not the next big thing, they are already here. Businesses that fail to take advantage of them will soon fall behind their competitors.