You see them all the time. You can’t get away from them. Chances are, you’ve looked at them or even left one.

For a business owner, it’s the big elephant in the room, the 800-pound gorilla. Whatever phrase you want to term it, if you run a business, you are almost undoubtedly aware of online reviews and how they may impact business, both positively and negatively.

I’ll admit it; I’m hooked on online reviews. Before I travel, I’m all over TripAdvisor, looking up potential hotels, reading what people have shared about their stay. I research and research, probably to the point of nausea for someone who isn’t a control freak. I don’t want to be surprised when I show up at a hotel.

Just recently, I was looking for a new dentist. What was the first thing I did? Compile a list and crosscheck it on Google, recording each review along the way.

Now, I haven’t had to hire an HVACR contractor yet, but I know when the time comes, I’ll be Googling like there’s no tomorrow, and I won’t feel bad about it for a second.

That being said, I’ve learned something in my tenure as a quasi-professional review reader: Don’t believe everything you see.

Don’t get me wrong, online reviews are a great guide and have helped me immensely — but make no mistake: they absolutely should not be the end-all, be-all.

For instance, last year I took a trip to Toronto and decided to stay at the Hilton Toronto because it was running a very nice promotion. So, I did my research and there were quite a few negative reviews. I was surprised because, hey, it’s the Hilton. After combing through page after page of reviews, I decided that most of the negative reviews were left by overly finicky people. I booked my stay there and it was fantastic. I’d recommend that hotel to anyone.

But most contractors don’t have the advantage of having 500 reviews on an online site like a lot of big city hotels do. For the Hilton, there were more than enough positive reviews that allowed me to write off the negative ones. Chances are your business won’t have that edge.

So what can you do about it? We all know frustrated customers are more likely to leave a review than those who feel satisfied. It’s just the fact of the matter. Although I’m not active in posting online reviews, I am active in directly contacting companies who I felt did not perform competently (airline industry, I’m staring at you). But think about yourself. How many times have you actually written a company or left an online review for someone doing a good job? I’ve done it about once.

Contractors have a good edge here, though. Most experiences consumers have are not personal. When I go to a restaurant, chances are I’m not talking to the manager. But when a service technician is out on a call, there’s a lot of one-on-one time there. Tell your employees to encourage satisfied customers to leave an online review. Better yet, give them a card that explains how they can do so.

The simpler you make it, the better the chances are they’ll leave a review. Better yet, give them a card with an entry code for a contest on your website. If they leave a review, they can enter into a drawing to win a nice prize, or maybe a discount on their service.

Incentivizing the process is key. I patronize the local Buffalo Wild Wings and I know I get giddy when I get a receipt that has an invitation to take a survey on it. You know why? Because five minutes of my time grants me $5 off my next order. I happily complete those surveys, and am not afraid to tell them how well (or poorly) I feel they are performing.

If you’re having a hard time getting people to leave reviews, it’s time to try something new. You might be surprised at what comes out of it.

With the Internet becoming such a vast resource, especially when it comes to customers seeking service, doesn’t it make sense (cents) to invest in your image, your customers, and, ultimately, yourself?

Publication date: 3/4/2013