If you’ve been in business for any length of time, chances are someone somewhere along the line wasn’t happy with your service, and they may have posted a tirade online, using ALL CAPS and punctuating each sentence with multiple exclamation points, emphatically warning the whole wide world not to do business with you.

It happens.

“Inevitably, you’re going to get one bad review,” says Theresa Truong, marketing manager with Small Screen Producer, a digital media marketing firm with a division specializing in the pool industry. “One might not be too damaging if you’re really reputable,” she adds, but when Google prominently displays multiple negative reviews about your business, well, now you’ve got a problem.

Indeed, a study conducted by Cone Communications, a Boston-based PR and marketing firm, found that 80 percent of consumers will change their minds about a purchase based solely on negative information on the Web. Conversely, 87 percent say positive Internet buzz will reinforce their decision to buy.

That’s where online reputation management comes in. While it can’t purge the Web of negative comments, it can bury them. Tactics vary, but the general idea is to push unflattering posts off Page One of Google by producing search-engine optimized content to highlight your services. That makes it more likely that a customer will find your blog, video or a photo gallery showcasing your best work rather than an unhappy customer’s rant.

About a year ago, the Houston-based agency began offering strategic counsel for clients facing a flurry of online criticisms. “We do have some clients with not-so-great reviews,” Truong says. “We help them remedy the situation and build from there.”

The agency — and others like them — monitors the Web for anything that may compromise their clients’ good standing, alerts them to any potential threats, and, if necessary, counsels them to tactfully respond to online gripes.

The need for such services is growing in tandem with the proliferation of user-generated review sites, such as Yelp and Citysearch. As of press time, there were nearly 2,000 complaints filed against pool companies on Ripoff Report, where consumers can air their grievances anonymously.

Generally, a company will try to regain control of its reputation only after a prospective customer alerts it to some of the online chatter he or she read. “They’ll say things like, ‘I noticed on Google, you had an unhappy customer six months ago.’ For most people, that’s when it really hits home,” says Andy Beal, CEO of Trackur, a social media monitoring software program.

But you needn’t wait for cyberspace to spiral out of control before taking action. As David Carleton puts it, there are two approaches to protecting your character online: proactive and reactive. Those who proactively safeguard their esteem are building up their presence online with search-engine friendly content while keeping a watchful eye out for any potential threats; a reactive approach is essentially a reconnaissance mission to get a reputation back after its been sullied by online squawkers.

“More often than not, when we get calls for online reputation management, somebody wrote something bad about their company, whether fairly or unfairly,” says Carleton, a San Diego-based consultant and former vice president of sales and marketing for Dimension One Spas.

A reputation management program can go beyond polishing one’s online image. In addition to manipulating the Web, some firms will institute good old-fashioned PR tactics — such as congratulating a new pool owner by sending a gift basket — with the goal of scoring a favorable mention on Angie’s List.

Sometimes it can mean getting to the root of the problem. Depending on the situation, Carleton advises clients to first make it right by the customer before doing any kind of digital mitigation. By doing so, the slighted customer may feel compelled to retract his or her statement. And, sometimes, it’s just a simple misunderstanding that leads to a bad review, such as when a pool builder is blamed for a subcontractor’s mistake. Carleton says those customers generally are willing to clarify their complaints.

Whatever you do, try to resolve the problem in the real world before offering your condolences on a discussion board. “You don’t want to air your dirty laundry back and forth for the whole world to see,” Carleton cautions.

But there may be cases that call of a tactful response online. Addressing a customer’s concern in a public forum “suggests to anybody else who might be reading the negative review that this is an isolated incident, and if they end up having a negative experience, they know that somebody is going to stand behind their work and [try] to resolve the issue,” says Beal, author of Radically Transparent: Monitoring and Managing Reputations Online.

Or there’s always the nuclear option: a lawsuit.

Two pending cases involving merchants threatening to sue customers over bad reviews raise an interesting question: Do they have a legal leg to stand on?

In the first case, which occurred last summer, a Port St. Lucie spa dealer demanded that a customer retract a post on Ripoff Report or they’d take her to court.

The Spa King claimed damages to the tune of $20,000. According to the exchange posted on Ripoff Report, Spa King attempted to work with the disgruntled customer, offering her opportunities to return the leaking tub with a 10 percent restocking fee, fixing it under warranty, or applying store credit toward a new tub — this in spite of the company’s no-return policy.

In order to get a favorable judgment, the Spa King will have to prove that the customer caused material harm and that she was less-than-truthful in her statements, according to Kelly/Warner, a Scottsdale, Ariz. law firm specializing in business, internet and defamation law.

The second case concerns Klear Gear, an online seller of fun, miscellaneous items such as Iron Man-shaped flash drives and LED shoelaces. The company is very sensitive about what people say about them and enforces an online defamation clause within its buyer’s contract. Customers who post anything that the company deems defamatory could be subject to a $3,500 bill.

That’s right, a bill for venting your frustrations online.

Klear Gear caused quite a stir in recent weeks after slapping a couple with a fee for posting about them on Ripoff Report. When they didn’t pay, Klear Gear sent the bill to collections, dinging the couple’s credit score.

The twist is that the couple wrote their review two years ago, and Klear Gear didn’t have a defamation clause at that time, according to reports.

In all likelihood, the case will be dismissed.

The moral of the story: If you’re going to seek legal action, do it sooner rather than later.

“When you’re dealing with patently false information, then you have a very short window in which to actually file an action,” says attorney Aaron Kelly of Kelly/Warner. “The statute of limitations for most states is one year, and more importantly, if you’re dealing with someone who is posting anonymously, you’re up against an even shorter time frame.” That’s because Internet service providers hold on to subscriber data for 180 days, max. Subscriber data is the primary means by which you can identify anonymous critics.

In short, think twice before posting a rebuttal or threatening legal action.

“Take it in stride. You can’t make everyone happy, and you’re going to get the occasional nut job who posts something wacky,” Kelly advises. “Pick and choose your battles carefully.”

NOTABLE NUMBERS 

80 % of consumers will change their minds about a purchase based solely on negative information on the Web

87 % say positive Internet buzz will reinforce their decision to buy

2,000 complaints filed against pool companies on Ripoff Report, where consumers can air their grievances anonymously