Editor’s note: This article is part of a featured series, 2015: The Year of Customer Service. In this series, we’re interviewing customer service experts to find out how companies can take a more customer-centric approach to business in 2015 and beyond. Find out what customer service experts say you should be doing to support your reputation and make customers happy in this exciting series.

When it comes to customer service, the proof is in the pudding: what customers say about you in online reviews is often the truth (for better or for worse). And as the director of external communications for leading local service review website Angie’s List, Cheryl Reed knows better than most the value of earning positive reviews with great customer service.

We asked her about dealing with negative reviews, getting value out of every review (good or bad), and perhaps most important of all: giving customers what they want with great communication. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Read on to learn how your business can use reviews and positive communication as a tool to continually improve and deliver great customer service.

Delivering What Customers Really Want: Excellent Communication

Customers complain for a variety of reasons, but the biggest complaint Reed hears from members is that companies fail to communicate. They either don’t call customers back, or when things go awry on the job, further communication is needed on a plan to fix things.

Good communication is important for every business, and customers always appreciate being kept in the loop, even when you’re sharing bad news. “We all know things aren’t going to be 100 percent perfect 100 percent of the time, but if you demonstrate a consistent record of trying to make things right, you’re better off,” says Reed.

Opening the Lines of Communication

An important part of good customer service and excellent communication is letting your customers know you’re open to ongoing conversations, says Reed. You can indicate you’d like to hear from them, whether it’s through email, phone or in person.

“Letting your customers know you WANT to know what they’re thinking puts you in a good light whether anything goes wrong later or not,” says Reed.

Reed advises businesses to share testimonials and encourage customers to check out your reviews. “It is a great way to show that you welcome feedback if you’re truly interested in what people are saying,” she says. “It’s a subtle message that says you’re paying attention and you’ll respond if something goes wrong.”

Keeping customer communication healthy often means regularly checking in as well. “For a big remodeling job, for example, we recommend daily or weekly check-ins so everyone knows they’re on the same page,” says Reed. “Small issues can be discovered and dealt with. The customer feels included and you can keep a better handle on how they’re feeling and how the job is going.”

Staying in Contact — No Matter What

“Train your employees to maintain open communication,” recommends Reed. “Giving the customer a 20-30 minute notice of arrival, letting them know exactly what they’ll be doing, immediately mentioning anything that could disrupt the progress of the work and either asking for feedback or letting them know to expect a request. It’s really about clarity throughout the entire process.”

When you’re in disagreement with a customer, Reed stresses that keeping communication lines open, clear, and professional is incredibly important. Even if your unsatisfied customer doesn’t appreciate it, prospective customers who can see both sides of the story probably will.

Monitoring Online Conversations

In addition to direct customer communication it’s important to keep an eye on online reviews and social media to monitor customer satisfaction. After all, online reviews, social media, and other online resources are just one more way that customers can communicate with you.

Of course, that doesn’t mean checking online reviews is always a fun task. “Social media can be your best friend even though the truth can sometimes seem to be a harsh mistress,” says Reed.

Still, it’s essential that you tackle online reviews head on. Reed recommends setting a time on your calendar, maybe for 20 minutes a day, to check in on social media and review sites. Even if you don’t want to do it yourself, it needs to be done — so if you’re not up to it, consider asking someone else you trust to monitor and respond and alert you as needed.

Staying on top of online communication is essential, as it can help you get ahead of problems before they really blow up. “Catching a negative review and asking how you can make it better within hours of it being posted speaks volumes about your attention to detail and to the delivery of great customer service,” Reed points out.

Your online communication doesn’t have to all be reactive, however. Reed encourages businesses to make it a habit to ask for a review after every job. This is a great way to generate feedback, she says. Plus, she shares that staying on top of the feedback can help prevent small issues from growing.

Getting the Most Value Out of Online Reviews — Positive or Negative

Good, bad, or neutral, you should be maximizing every opportunity offered to you with online reviews. They are, of course, a tool for promotion and reputation building, allowing others to speak for you in a way that other customers trust and have come to rely on. But they’re also an incredibly useful source of information that you can turn into fuel for building a better customer service system for your business.

“Every online review of a company’s performance has value,” says Reed. “They’re the referral – good or bad – that your customers are giving you publicly and privately. Reviews tell the story of how well you deliver your services from the eyes of your clients/customers. That’s gold.”

Reed recommends using negative reviews to learn more about where your business can improve. You may struggle with communication or punctuality, and when customers tell you about your need to improve, either directly or through a review, you should make it a point to focus on delivering better in those areas. Though you may feel other shortfalls are more important to take care of, hearing from customers what they want you to improve should take precedent. They are explicitly telling you what customers want; don’t hesitate to deliver it.

On the other hand, positive reviews can be a valuable source of information as well. “Positive reviews show what you’re doing right,” says Reed. They also offer insight into who your top performers are, and the strengths customers think set your business apart. “You may even learn that your team is doing awesome work and deserves recognition or reward,” she says.

This information is just as valuable as reviews that point out what’s wrong. You can build on your strengths, giving more opportunities to employees who are doing a great job, and expanding in areas that customers show appreciation for. Knowing what customers think makes your business uniquely successful is incredibly helpful for deciding what your business needs to focus on in the future.

Mediocre reviews aren’t as clear cut and useful as overtly positive or negative reviews, but they still have their own value. Reed says that mediocre reviews can tell you that you may just be getting by. If that’s the case, you’re getting a clear message that you’re at a turning point for your business, and you’ll need to step it up — or else.

Reed points out that if you’re fortunate to have several recent reviews, or ideally an ongoing stream of them, you can use the information as a real-time reality check, and you can continually improve your performance by objectively using your reviews. She does stress, however, that you need to objectively use reviews, meaning you should not react emotionally or defensively to them. Instead, see them as the valuable information tools they are and use them to gauge how well you’re doing and where you need to focus your efforts to improve customer service.

How to Handle Negative Reviews

When we talk about reviews, especially in a reputation management context, the first thing businesses want to know about is how to deal with negative reviews. It’s no wonder: they’re a red mark on your online reputation, a disappointment to your business, and let’s face it, they can be infuriating. Most business owners would prefer to just erase them and forget they ever happened.

But Reed has encouraging advice for business owners plagued by bad reviews, pointing out that negative feedback can make your business seem more human, and that your response can (and should) be a professional, positive reflection on your company.

Why Negative Reviews Aren’t All Bad

Bad reviews are practically inevitable. “You can’t go wrong when you consistently deliver great service, but even the best company is going to have a wrinkle now and then,” says Reed.

But there’s an upside to getting bad reviews (yes, really). Reed says that negative, or even reviews that aren’t glowingly perfect, can make you seem more human. They offer authenticity and make your positive reviews more relatable.

A mix of both positive and negative reviews brings a balanced view of your business, and customers are more likely to believe positive reviews if they’re flanked with a couple bad ones. After all, consumers realize that sometimes, reviews aren’t real and may be fabricated by the company or written by paid reviewers. A business that has 100% positive and enthusiastic reviews can actually be suspicious, not trustworthy. But a negative review encourages readers to believe that every review present is shared without bias. (Note that Angie’s List works diligently to keep out fake reviews.)

How to Respond to Negative Reviews

Even though a few negative reviews aren’t necessarily a bad thing, that doesn’t mean you have to simply accept them and let it go. You should face your negative reviews, work to make it right, and respond publicly and professionally to the feedback.

“Angie’s List encourages companies to respond to negative reviews by first reviewing them objectively and then evaluating the feedback (again, objectively) to determine why the job went off the rails,” says Reed. Taking a hard look at what led to the negative feedback can help you improve in the future.

Saving the Customer Relationship

Reed says that Angie’s List companies are also encouraged to reach out to the customer to try to make it right, and this is a good policy for all businesses. Even though the communication is not direct, negative reviews should be treated just like complaints that are given first person. Working with the reviewer to make things right shows that you value their thoughts and their business, and it can help you save the customer relationship. Done well, reaching out to negative reviewers can turn customers who would have walked away into customers who rave about your service.

Working to turn an angry customer into a happy one isn’t always easy, but it is possible. Reed emphasizes how crucial it is to keep a clear head. “No one enjoys getting criticized and sometimes seeing a negative review in black and white – or ALL CAPS – on a website can get your hackles up,” she says. “It’s human nature.” But it’s essential that you respond professionally and in a way that encourages positive communication.

“Take some time to absorb it before you respond, or keep your initial responses private, unseen and unrecorded,” says Reed.

Reed points out that you should be thankful for the chance to work on negative feedback: “Think about it this way: in the past you may have had a customer who felt terribly served. That customer may have gone to dozens of people with a tale of woe that put you in a very bad light; could even cost you business. With an online review, lots of people see it, sure. But so do you. It may be your only chance to know about it. That gives you a tremendous opportunity you may not have had otherwise.”

Saving the customer relationship isn’t just a great way to fix the negative review, it can offer encouragement to potential customers as well: “Many times, if a company makes a bad situation better, the Angie’s List member will amend his or her review to reflect that,” says Reed. “Many of our members like to hire companies who have a record of correcting things because they know that no one’s perfect.”

Publicly Responding to Every Review

Positive or negative, repaired or dissatisfied, it’s important that you publicly respond to each and every review. Angie’s List encourages companies to respond to reviews regardless of the grade given. Reed advises businesses to say thank you for the positive ones, and give your side of the story for the not-so-positive ones.

Posting a response sends a message to customers that you’re listening to what they have to say, and that their opinion is valuable to you. Of course, it also gives you a chance to set things straight if you don’t agree with what the reviewer has said.

“It gets a bit tricky when the company sincerely believes the customer isn’t in the right on the issue,” says Reed. “But we believe, even in this case, that it’s still better to take the high road because if you have a majority of positive reviews, they’ll carry you through the one you didn’t feel you deserved.”

If you’re faced with a review you don’t agree with, say so. But remember to do it professionally. Reed advises, “It’s OK to post a message that says, ‘We respectfully disagree with this assessment and tried our best to please this customer. We regret that we couldn’t agree on a solution.’ Or something similar.”

Even though you don’t agree, it’s important to remain respectful and choose your words carefully. “Don’t wage war,” says Reed. “No one wins in that scenario.”

While in your mind your response may be crafted directly for the person who left you a negative review, Reed encourages businesses to remember that the reality of your response’s audience is much different. “It’s important that companies understand that when they post online response, they suddenly have a global audience, or in our case, they’re talking with all Angie’s List members, not just the customer who left the review,” she says. “What you write – just as how you act – is a reflection of how you do business. Period. So be mindful of that rather than firing off an emotional reaction.”

Making Customer Service a Top Priority

Of course, the best way to deal with a bad review is to not get one at all. And the easiest way to do that is to deliver top notch customer service, encouraging your employees to do their best for every customer.

“We have companies that have what they call “Angie’s List teams” who are the ones who respond to Angie’s List member jobs,” shares Reed. “They do this because they want to continue earning positive reviews, so they put their best people on those jobs.”

Reed doesn’t share this information to say that other customers don’t get great service, but to illustrate the point that these companies are placing importance on top performance and rewarding great performers for their continued good work. She also points out that other companies may offer bonuses or other rewards for reviews that cite employees by name. This is a great idea if you want to encourage employees to do their best and work to earn great reviews.

In addition to offering customer service with positive reviews in mind, Reed recognizes companies with quality sytems in place, and encourages continual improvement. If you’ve done well, it’s easy to want to rest on your laurels a bit, Reed relates, but it’s important to keep up the good work with constant attention to customer service.

Reed encourages businesses to make customer service a priority by asking for reviews and using available tools to maintain open communication. “This helps you tremendously in the Angie’s List world where we want to give our members as much information as possible,” she says.

But remember, reviews aren’t the only resource for great communication. “Asking for feedback (in whatever form) demonstrates that you are dedicated to not just doing a good job once, but to continual improvement,” says Reed. “And that’s great because while you want your business to grow, you also want repeat business, right?”

Positive Reviews Can Really Pay Off

Understanding that positive reviews can help your company grow is a no brainer. Of course having customers spread the word that you do a great job will help you improve: it helps to support your good reputation, build trust, and attract new customers. But the true impact that positive reviews can have on your business can’t be understated. Reed says she’s seen example after example of success with businesses that put a premium on customer service and earn excellent reviews as a result.

An Ohio roofing company grew from a single city service to a multi state powerhouse, just by earning positive early reviews and expanding along with Angie’s List:

“One company who earned early reviews from our members back in our early days in Columbus, Ohio, is possibly the best example. This roofing company, which performed well already, started earning great reviews and wanted to keep it that way. As we expanded into Indianapolis, then other Midwestern cities, that company opened offices where we opened markets. They kept to their high standards, kept earning good reviews from our members and kept growing. They’re a powerhouse now.”

Another roofer started out so small he used his truck as his office, but after earning positive reviews on Angie’s List, he’s expanded into a leader in his local industry:

“A Chicago roofer told Angie once that when he earned his first Angie’s List review – a positive one – he didn’t yet have an actual office. His office was essentially his truck. That first Angie’s List review-related job led to another job. That led to another job and so on. He’s now one of the more successful companies in his area.”

Making a commitment to great customer service and earning great reviews can be the difference between just getting by and truly growing your business. And while delivering good customer service and soliciting positive reviews does take considerable effort, it’s clear that it has a positive ROI. Spending time taking care of your customers today and asking them to share their positive experience is extremely likely to earn you a stronger business tomorrow.

Reviews aren’t all about reacting to negative feedback, however. Positive reviews deserve your attention, too, and you should recognize that they’re worth their weight in gold, encouraging potential customers to trust you, and even helping you to further develop your business.

Thank you to Cheryl Reed for sharing your incredible insight into reviews and customer service! Visit www.angieslist.com to learn more about what Angie’s List can do for your business, and follow Cheryl Reed on Twitter @cherylbreed.