So we have the two sides of the Web. Companies are now fearing the negative side of online review sites and social media feeds more than any other digital challenge. Research from reputation management specialists Igniyte suggests companies see tackling online negativity as a bigger issue than winning new customers on digital channels.
It is a very difficult area because I know people who run companies that have suffered at the hands of either rival companies or disgruntled former employees and feel powerless and unsure what to do next.
To the trained eye, the language is usually fairly easy to see through. When someone has absolutely nothing positive to say and everything seems just a little too personal, you can usually be sure the person has an axe to grind with the company owners.
The research from Igniyte suggests that around a third of companies believe slanderous comments made online have cost them GBP50,000 or more. It's obviously difficult to put a value on it but suffice to say it is a very big deal.
Companies, as I see it, have two options. They can withdraw from social and bury their heads in the sand or they can roll up their sleeves and become more engaged with social and review sites. The latter is the better course of action because whether or not they are actively involved, the sites will continue without them.
If you leave sites to the haters, then you're asking for trouble because they can carry on hating and you have no means of knowing or countering what their latest accusations are.
So although it may seem odd, I believe the best route is to become further involved. Businesses that do not seek Facebook recommendations or review site feedback should constantly ask themselves why not.
If you are providing a good service or product, trust me, if you ask people to "click here to rate us" they generally will and they will provide proper feedback. Over time, this should outweigh the occasional disgruntled employee, the rival firm down the road or the occasional customer who simply can't be pleased.
A top tip I pass on to company owners is to not just to solicit reviews and recommendations from customers, so they water down any negativity, but to actively engage in responding to issues.
This gives you an opportunity to address a complainer to see what you can do for them and offers the opportunity to try to flush them out if they are a rival or someone else with an axe to grind. Asking for the person to call you with more details about the product or service so you can identify them is a good opener. You stand the chance of speaking to a dissatisfied customer or not being contacted. If it's the latter, a note a week or so later saying that you'd still love to talk to the person will reveal to the online community that your earlier invitation was not taken up and people can make their own minds up why it wasn't.
Also, investigating any real concerns and publicly apologising or explaining why something went wrong makes sense. Publishing a response stating that you can't quite see what happened in their case so they should call you allows a dignified, professional means of maintaining contact. Rogue customers will simply not respond, and those with a genuine gripe will usually provide feedback.
The elephant in the room here is that you can easily show you take complaints seriously and are willing to look into them. People who don't take you up on this will attract the suspicions of social and review sites users.
The ultimate lesson is that if you trust the public, they will generally come to the right conclusion. Water down the haters and offer to help them out, but never get involved in a slanging match online. Always be polite and offer to settle things on the phone or give a reasonable explanation why an unreasonable request could not be met.
People are generally a lot smarter and more Web savvy than marketers make them out to be.
If you disengage and allow your only reviews to be terrible, you have a problem.
Get it right and people will see who the haters are and ignore their bile.