by Lori Prosio 

The first thing I do any time I plan to try a new restaurant is go to Yelp to see what other diners thought of the food, the cost and the service. And if I see a couple of really bad reviews, I usually reconsider.

It wasn’t that long ago when most of us relied almost solely upon our friends, family and colleagues for referrals and feedback about products or services. While a rave review from a person close to us may influence a purchase, we are now just as likely to make a choice based on a bad review from a stranger, thanks to online reviews.

As consumers, we spend a lot of time checking out reviews about what to buy or where to go and making decisions based on feedback (often from strangers).

Businesses, however, are not paying enough attention to this interaction. They are losing sight of the impact that social media is having on their brand, and that’s a big mistake. Mc­Kinsey & Co. research shows that a single negative post on social media has, on average, as much impact on customer decisions as five positive posts.

Simply put, the Internet and social media have changed the way we interact with customers and thus changed the rules of marketing, too. Traditional marketing and advertising don’t have the same power they used to because social and online media have taken control of the messages out of the hands of advertisers and into the hands of the customer.

While online and social media access enables companies to get messages in front of people in ways that advertisers could have only dreamed about a decade ago, it also provides an open door for public criticism. It’s important for businesses to appreciate the value that the new “word-of-mouth” has to a potential customer,and find ways to make it work in their favor.

There are a few easy things you can do to stay on top of what people are saying about your business:

Engage with your customers online — If you come across a negative review of your business and have the ability to post a response, you definitely should.

This isn’t the time to get into an argument or debate about why something did or didn’t happen to the liking of the customer — we all know that sometimes, some people can’t be pleased no matter how hard we try. That said, if you see a negative review, take the time to acknowledge the customer’s unhappiness through a simple apology.

Use Google Alerts – One of the easiest things you can do to stay on top of what people are saying about your business online is to set up a Google Alert.

A Google Alert is an automatic notification for users when new content from news, web, blogs, video and/or discussion groups matches a set of search terms.

You can use Google Alerts to monitor anything on the web, and alerts can be sent via email, web page or accessed on your iGoogle page. It’s a fast and easy way to find out what is being said about your company or product, and offers you a better opportunity to respond in a more timeline manner to what’s being said about you online.

Provide an alternative resolution —Not only do customers appreciate the opportunity to be heard, they want to know that you’re going to do something about their complaint.

If there’s a simple way to help resolve their issue, offer it. Sometimes something as simple as a free item or a discount to try your business or product again both acknowledges the person’s unhappiness or inconvenience, and provides an opportunity to do a better job next time, which may be all it takes to turn a negative online review around.

Learn to take conversations offline — One of the risks of engaging with an unhappy customer online is that if the outcome of the discussion isn’t exactly what they wanted (and sometimes you just don’t know what that is), your communication with them can fuel their unhappiness and provide them with an opportunity to rant out of control. This can take up not only a lot of time and resources (not to mention space on your Facebook page, for example), but can also become a public forum for other customers to engage in the negativity.

If possible, find a way to engage a disgruntled customer privately. Provide them an email or phone number to call to discuss their specific needs with you directly. By taking what was initially a customer service issue turned rant out of the public’s view, you can also help minimize further damage that could result.

This article originally appeared in the February 8, 2013 edition of the Sacramento Business Journal.