Every business can have a bad day. What can you do to combat a negative review that’s threatening to ruin your business?

Fighting bad customer opinions isn’t cheap. Just look at the 2011 story of Taco Bell.

When a customer filed a class-action lawsuit claiming beef in the fast-food chain’s entrees included 65 percent binders, there was nothing mild about how Taco Bell President Greg Creed moved to “set the record straight.” Full-page newspaper ads and online videos blasted the company’s message: “Thank you for suing us. Here's the truth about our seasoned beef.” As further demonstration of confidence, the chain offered 10 million Facebook fans a coupon for a free beef taco.

Taco Bell’s response reached far beyond where most small businesses will ever need — or want ­­— to go. Still, it’s prompted many discussions about how to react when customers go public with negative opinions.

Social media alters the publicity landscape

Back when publicity spread primarily via traditional media, common wisdom — cited by everyone from Mark Twain to Bill Clinton — was to “never argue with those who buy ink by the barrel.” Instead, businesses bided time, waiting for negative broadcasts to drift into thin air and newspaper pages to line garbage cans. It was, after all, before the days of recycling — and retweeting.

But today, every business needs answers to the following questions:

- How do you encourage and monitor customer comments?

- What do you do when reviews are bad?

- What do you do if you think reviews are unfair, or fraudulent?

Dealing with customer reviews on a small-business scale

Cilantro Grill in Lahaina, Hawaii, operates on the far end of the Mexican food category from Taco Bell. While Taco Bell has 5,600 outlets, Cilantro has one. And while negative opinions of Taco Bell spread via national news, opinions about Cilantro spread via word-of-mouth — and the Internet ­­— making it a good contrast between how big and small businesses deal with customer comments.

“I read every single [comment], and good or bad, I leave them untouched for others to see,” says Cilantro chef and owner Paris Nabavi. “Whatever people want to say, that’s OK,” he adds.

“Cilantro served 73,000 people last year ­— and we got 30 Yelp comments. Why worry? Sure, some comments are without context, but if there’s something I can fix, I’m on it fast­ with changes and training. Customer reviews are the cheapest way to learn from our mistakes. I think that’s why we have a good reputation.” It also may be why 2010 was the best in Cilantro’s 12-year history.

3 steps to customer-comment management

So how can you leverage customer reviews to work in your favor?

Well, print and broadcast media are still coveted channels for publicity, but the Internet is where the action is — and where customer opinions gain steam through comments upon comments and viral sharing of the best of the best (or the worst of the worst). Follow these steps to tip the scales in your favor:

1. Encourage reviews. Cilantro posts Zagat and Yelp logos to encourage use of review sites. It also makes comment cards available and displays the restaurant’s website address with an invitation to comment directly. Other businesses distribute cards featuring review site URLs, along with next-visit discounts redeemable whether or not reviews are posted.

2. Monitor reviews. Sign up for Google alerts to stay on top of what people are saying. Direct results to an RSS feed like Google Reader to capture all comments in one place.

3. Keep your cool. When you take a hit, unless it’s untrue, don’t hit back. Maintain a positive tone, look for truth in every comment, and fix whatever you can. Then, use your blog or, if feasible, contact the reviewer to share how the comment prompted improvements.

Forrester Research Analyst Andrew McInnes reports that 81 percent of customers who felt that a business went beyond the expected to resolve a problem were likely to become repeat customers, and 65 percent were likely to tell someone about the positive outcome. Those stats alone are reason to take customer comments seriously. They’re proof that customer reviews — good or bad ­— can unlock business growth and customer loyalty.