Your happy customers can be your best brand ambassadors, pushing your products or services farther than even the cleverest marketing campaign. “There is so much data out there that shows the importance of favorable online reviews,” says Richard Thomas, Executive VP of Listen360. “We all like to point to the Nielsen report showing that online consumer reviews are the second most trusted source of brand information after recommendations from friends and family. The number of consumers that rely on these reviews is rising.”

The impact reviews have on your business isn’t as straightforward as just driving customers to your door — the quality of those reviews can have a big impact on your bottom line as well. A Harvard study reports that a 1-star increase in a businesses’ Yelp review can result in a a 5-9% increase in revenue. And, Thomas explains, businesses getting those great reviews are likely to have high customer loyalty, which means better performance and growth over time.

So making sure your customers are happy with your products — happy enough to jump onto their favorite social networks and leave you a glowing review — needs to be your top priority. “At Listen360, we try to help businesses stay one step ahead. We want to make them fully aware of how customers feel about their businesses so that they don’t have to constantly worry about whether a customer might post something negative on an online review site,” says Thomas. “We believe that if a business is doing a good job of providing great service and taking care of its customers, the preponderance of evidence in online reviews will reflect that.”

So just how can you make sure your online reputation will dazzle your potential clients? Let’s take a look at some best practices as recommended by our experts.

Making the Leap from Happy Customers to Happy Reviews

“There is no question that positive online reviews are beneficial. The real question is how to increase them,” says Thomas. While it doesn’t take much for a frustrated customer to complain on Twitter, a customer who’s completely content might not think to take the step of leaving a positive comment or review on a social site.

The trick is to encourage your customers to talk about you online — without being pushy or badgering them (which has the potential to burn through goodwill quickly). “Every business needs a process in place for gathering feedback from existing customers,” explains Alex Brola, President and Co-founder of Checkmaid. “In many cases, that’s as simple as calling your customers after they’ve used your product. If the call is going well and they clearly like your service, you can simply tell them that you use Angie’s List or Yelp and that it’d be a huge help if they could share their experience with you online.”

Sometimes a simple reminder is all it takes to encourage your best customers to leave an online review, but you can even take it further and offer incentives — from contest entries to discounted services — for customers who leave reviews. Once you’ve got them interested in writing a review, the easier you can make it, the better. “For example, every time customers provide great feedback for one of our customers using Listen360, we ask them right then to share their positive experiences on their social networks,” says Thomas. “And they do!”

Keeping Tabs on Your Online Reputation

Unfortunately for those trying to keep an eye on their online reviews, there are numerous sites your customers may be using to discuss your business. “If you’re a service business, you definitely want to be working on improving your Google Local, Yelp, and Angie’s List reviews,” says Brola. “If you’re a restaurant, you want to pay attention to Urbanspoon, as well as Yelp and Google.” If you’re a retailer, you’ll want to be sure you’re getting high marks on whatever vendor sites are selling your products. “If people are finding you on Amazon, you better have good Amazon reviews.”

You don’t have to spend a lot of time managing your online review presence, but the more effort you pay to maintaining your profile on review sites like Yelp, the more likely these sites are to drive sales. “Yelp alone has a massive amount of traffic, not to mention that it funnels even more from Google,” says Brola. “So if you’re ranking on that site and have a good reputation, you’re going to get additional sales from it. Customers that rely on these platforms put huge amounts of trust into the reviews too. If you can manage to keep a good reputation where those customers live, you get a never-ending trickle of leads from people who really, really want to use your service.”

If you want to take things a step further, you can also take advantage of paid advertising on review sites. Though you have many options for spending your advertising budget, running a campaign on a review site can offer especially good returns if you have a good reputation there already.

Making the Most of Your Positive Reviews

It’s not enough to have great reviews online — you need to put some effort into spreading those reviews far and wide to get the best possible benefit from your customers’ goodwill. “You have to put those positive reviews to work for you! The more advocates you have out there telling your story, the better,” says Thomas. “The reality is that today, it doesn’t matter what you say about your company. The only thing that matters is what your customers say.”

If you have stellar online reviews, don’t be afraid to flaunt them. Highlight good reviews on your website, marketing materials, and social networks. “Use them as testimonials in your advertising, your marketing, emails, direct mail, everywhere,” says Thomas.

Even if potential customers don’t have their own accounts on Yelp or Angie’s List, they’re likely to recognize those names if you include them on your promotional material. And a high review rating will always garner positive attention. “Simply having the logo, amount of reviews, and the average star or letter rating on mailers and other materials, has helped tremendously,” says Brola. So wherever your reviews reside, be sure to get them out in front of people, as much as possible.

[Image credit: Paul Stein, Felipe Cabrera, Jakrapong Kongmalai]