Rule No. 1 of maintaining your sanity (and your blood pressure) online: Don't read the comments. If you own a small business, though, take a deep breath — it turns out engaging your customers on review sites has measurable effects on your bottom line.
Researchers at the University of Southern California and Boston University just released a study looking for correlations between TripAdvisor reviews and customer relations. About 1 in 3 reviews on "the world's largest travel site" get replies from management. Those businesses tend to get 12 percent more reviews, as well as slightly higher (.12 percent) ratings, which can provide an edge in an often-inflexible ratings ecosystem.
Not only is this an easy way to stay in touch with your customer base, it's a free way to improve your chances of connecting with new clients. Part of why it works? It manages some of the venting that may make its way onto your Yelp page or your Google search results. Ever see a polite rebuttal of someone's rant about bad service? Standing up for yourself makes angry online reviewers more conservative in their claims — and more reluctant to sling mud without receipts. "It is almost like someone is looking behind your shoulder when you are writing a negative review," said study co-author Georgios Zervas.
Open communication and transparency is always a good look for small businesses. It builds relationships with customers and it shows that you're serious about doing a good job. The flip-side of the study's findings is that negative reviews in response to communicative managers were more likely to run longer and to contain evidence of their unsatisfactory experience. If that happens, take it as a gift: This feedback can help you improve, whether in your approach to service, your premises, or just what you're offering. You opened your business to fill a niche, and customer comments can help you understand and further define that gap in the market.
That said, don't forget to recognize a troll when you spot one (in which case, save your energy and try not to engage). Comments can become weaponized online, but an online presence goes both ways. If you carefully curate your points of contact with your customers, you're making your space safe for them too.