Countless consumers in your area are online right now. If even one is sounding off unhappily about your company, how do you know, much less respond, in a constructive way?

First, get used to the new reality. You can't prevent complaints online any more than you can stop gossip at a neighborhood cookout. There are literally thousands of outlets through which consumers can rant or rave — blogs, listservs, and sites from Facebook to, for starters — about virtually anything. “There's not a thing we can do about it,” says an executive at one company that has been smeared by some online “reviews” that he speculates were posted by competitors.

Hybrid social networking/consumer-review site Yelp may be a model to watch. It's active in 14 major metro markets and has millions of visitors. Businesses can register, upload photos and information, and respond to reviews. Then, be proactive to the extent possible. Online sounding boards are “often an opportunity to turn lemons into lemonade,” says Michelle Doischen, a marketing executive at Case Design/Remodeling, in Bethesda, Md.

Case, for instance, proactively monitors the Web for mention of its name, and advertises on some consumer-review sites, such as Angie's List. In addition, Case staff are encouraged to subscribe to community listservs (e-mail lists), which are often hotbeds of discussion about local businesses.

Some sites attempt to notify companies of comments about them, usually via e-mail. If you learn that your company has received a negative review, respond quickly and professionally, Doischen says. Show your concern, state how you resolved the situation, and don't use defensive or angry language even if the poster is unreasonable.

Case has a process for responding to posts to ensure both that the responses are appropriate and that the comments are routed to the right staff member. Knowing that prospects do extensive research online, Case preempts dashed hopes by encouraging prospects to “go check us out” on the sites. Most comments are positive, Doischen says, but “we'll tell [prospects] if something is not positive, to ask us how we resolved it. That's what's important — how a company responds to these things.”

Even posting a balanced response on the sites is positive PR, she adds. “We often find that people are most impressed with our response. They'll say, ‘Wow, I can't believe you guys responded and were willing to make good on it.'”

Read more about this issue  in the Web Extra.