You probably know the old marketing adage: a happy customer will tell no one, but an unhappy customer will tell 20. When we’re happy, we’re complacent. We just exist with what we have. But when we’re unhappy we tend to need to blow off steam – and the unhappier we are, the louder we get.

If you’re talking around the office or at your kids soccer practice, people listen and forget quickly.

But what about in today’s world with online reviews? Write a bad review and it can haunt a business forever.

Online reviews sound like a good thing in theory. There are many different places you can leave a review, and they really can help a person make a decision. For instance, on our recent trip to Europe, we relied heavily on reviews for the apartments we rented. We only chose places with a number of reviews that for the most part had positive things to say.

But like everything, good things can turn bad.

This week, all kinds of bad review scams have been brought to my attention.

A friend here in town runs a service business. He had a customer come in last week and ask for all kinds of services. The work was done, only to have the customer come back in for payment and ask to be comped on everything. His threat was he would write a bad review if he didn’t get the services for free.

My friend did the right thing, asked for full payment and showed him the door.

Restaurants are also reporting a record number of people coming in and eating a meal, only to ask for the meal for free as the bill arrives. If not, they threaten, they will write a bad review.

Photographer Gary Fong also released a video this week in which he talks about a wedding photographer who shot a wedding for a lawyer, only to be served  with a letter asking for $15,000 in damages plus a full refund. If not, the lawsuit will move forward and include the lawyer putting up a website fully discrediting this photographer, also telling him he would invest in SEO services to make sure this site was always kept in the top rankings of Google. In affect ruining his business forever.

What’s up with all of this? It all amounts to blackmail, theft and robbery.

Before Internet, no one thought of blackmailing a company for free products and services with the threat of putting them out of business otherwise. It was illegal and it simply didn’t happen.

Yet today, people have figured out a way to beat the system and use a threat to get what they want. Online reviews are that important and people know it. So they are the new ransom.

Yes, we hear stories all the time about companies that make up their own reviews. A few companies have even been caught attempting to sell advertising by guaranteeing the bad review will fall to the bottom if they pay for an advertising campaign.

But what about customers that are now threatening business owners? If its happened to you, what do you do?

While we’re still in uncharted waters, ultimately it comes down to being a savvy marketer. Marketing is usually associated with getting your name out there to bring in business. But ask any large company and they know marketing is a whole lot more. Marketing encompasses the entire process of creating a strong company brand. It has to control the good and the bad, bring in customers and keep them happy. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Monitor Your Online Persona

I’ve heard some people say the whole concept of having a site on Facebook, Yelp, Twitter – whatever social site you can think of – scares them, so they choose to do nothing at all. If you don’t know what’s happening, you can’t control the good and the bad.

Every business in today’s world must monitor the online marketplace to supervise their reputation. You have to claim your business on sites like Yelp and Google Places to monitor them more effectively. And you have to monitor the conversation that exists in real time. Every minute a negative review exists could be costing you business.

Dig Deeper: 5 Easy Ways To Protect Your Brand

Report Bad Behavior

When you see malicious or false reviews, its always good to report them. Every site has a process to report a review; find “report a problem link” somewhere on the page. While it may take a while or even be ignored all together, the first step in the process is taking control over spam and malicious behavior. If a site begins to notice certain IP addresses or accounts creating all kinds of havoc, chances are they will eventually be banned from the system. It all starts with the first report, so don’t be afraid to take action.

Participate

When you know where your reviews are showing up, you can watch what people are saying … and respond. With every review site that exists online, you can create your own unique profile. Having a profile means you can own your persona – and respond to reviews, both negative and positive.

No business will ever get 100 percent positive review – it just doesn’t happen. The key is solving problems before they spin out of control.

To outweigh the negativity, encourage positivity. Ask for positive reviews from all your customers by sending them links and asking for them. Again, happy people are complacent and usually wind up doing nothing. But if you ask 10 people, you are likely to get one or two to respond.

As you find reviews, respond when you can. If they have positive comments, confirm the positive and add even more. If they have problems or questions, respond directly on the review site itself. Most sites give you the opportunity to respond so people reading them can see what action was taken. Here’s an example from HomeAway.com site we use:

People can read through the “fluff”. They can usually pick out the bad from the good. They can tell grumpy people from sincere. Yet if you don’t know what exists, you are putting yourself in a bad situation.

Today’s business world is different than it was even a few short years ago. If we don’t stand up and take action against this behavior, it will simply grow. Make others aware of what is happening, and let the “criminals” get what they deserve.

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