Worried mature Couple in Meeting With Advisor at homeNew business owners may care deeply about customer happiness, but many live in fear of customer unhappiness. That fear is founded:  Customers not only have a huge megaphone for sharing their opinions of products, services and companies (i.e. the Internet, online reviews, social media), but they increasingly turn to the opinions of others like themselves to decide where to spend their money.

In fact, consumers today—not companies themselves—hold the power to make or break a business. So what can new business owners do to take some control and have peace of mind?

In a word, be “proactive.” You have to stop thinking of your company’s reputation as something to be managed only when it starts to show signs of illness. Instead, your reputation is something to be proactively built over the long term by having a strategy and a process in place. Customer reviews are at the heart of reputation building: If you can proactively generate customer reviews, testimonials and endorsements from your happy customers and proactively reach unhappy customers before they bad-mouth your business online, you will always stay ahead in the reputation game.

The specific tactics you deploy may differ depending on the nature of your business and offerings, but here are some essential elements of a successful customer review strategy:

Offer prominent customer feedback channels. Phone numbers, email addresses, SMS contacts, web and app forms, and even old-school suggestion boxes can serve as conduits for valuable customer intelligence as well as release valves for disgruntled customers who need to vent. Some redundancy here is good:  Customers who can’t or won’t call during business hours should be able to send an email after hours.

Implement a “review funnel” system. A review funnel is your way of systematically identifying, asking and guiding happy customers through sharing their experience on review and social sites that matter to your business. Positive feedback and testimonials are great, but it’s far more valuable to have those sentiments expressed on a third-party channel where potential new customers are discovering and evaluating products and services.

Monitor what people are saying about your business. Monitoring reviews is about more than gaining insight into your business’s reputation and where it’s headed. A timely and well-crafted response to a negative review can transform it instantly from liability to asset, demonstrating your commitment to customer care. And catching such reviews when they happen means they’re not dangling out there in public doing damage for weeks before you notice.

In this case, an ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure:  it could be worth pounds of solid gold. Online customer reviews today enjoy unprecedented visibility and influence via online social, search and review platforms like Facebook, Google and Yelp. This digital word-of-mouth is so insanely influential that the stats blow the minds of traditional marketers and advertisers:  88% of consumers consult reviews when making a purchase; 93% of U.S consumers at least sometimes check reviews before dining or shopping; 4 out of 5 consumers reverse their purchase decisions based on negative online reviews.

So do your business a favor and get proactive with customer reviews. Over time, you will enjoy their insane influence working for you, not against you.

Jon Hall is the author of The Marketer’s Guide to Customer Reviews and founder of Grade.us, a complete review marketing and monitoring solution that makes it easy for businesses to get customer reviews on the sites that matter.