It’s every business owner’s nightmare: Negative reviews. What if people post them on my Facebook wall, on Yelp, on Foursquare, on Google Places, or one of the other hundred review websites on the web? What do I do? Can I delete them? Should I delete them?

The answer depends on what kind of review you’re dealing with: The rational or the irrational.

The rational negative reviewer has had a bad experience at your business. Maybe the soup was cold or the oil change didn’t get done quickly enough or the front desk girl was rude. Hey, it happens–we all have bad days. They have a reason (even if you don’t think it’s a good reason) to be upset.

If the rational negative reviewer posts a negative comment to a forum where you could theoretically delete the posts (like Facebook or your website), don’t delete them unless they use foul language or are abusive. Why? Nothing will irritate these crusaders than the idea that you’re trying to slip their complaint under the rug. Leave the comment, and publicly reply with an apology and an offer to contact you to make it right. For most of the rationals, this is all they want: to know that they were heard, and perhaps to receive a moderate restitution, like a coupon, free service, or correction of a mistake. Feel free to politely ask the aggrieved party to post on social media that you’ve made the situation right, if you think they’d be open to it.

If this negative review occurs somewhere you can’t delete them, you’re stuck. But the same rules apply: apologize, offer to make it right, and ask them to post an update to the review. This shows that you’re actively monitoring social media, and really care about customer’s problems and want to make them right.

This is all assuming you’re dealing with a rational human being. Unfortunately, you’ll sometimes get the crazies. These people can’t be placated: there’s nothing you can do to make the situation right. They might spam your Facebook wall with warnings for people not to post there, or they might bombard review sites with negative posts under pseudonyms. No matter how you try to reach out to them or fix the relationship, these people don’t care.

On sites out of your control, all you can do is to try to hide these trolling reviews. Ask your best customers if they’d  be willing to write reviews of your business–maybe even offer a coupon or a token of appreciation for their efforts. This will push the negative reviews out of site. Under no circumstances should you write fake reviews yourself–these are against most review site’s terms of service, and is just dishonest to boot.

If these irrational folks are posting on your Facebook page or your blog repeatedly, after attempts to correct the situation have been offered, or they use foul or abusive language, delete the posts. This is the only time this is permissible: when people won’t see reason. Otherwise, deal with people who complaints with respect, apology, and a focus on making your business better for the next time.

Every company will get a negative review at some time or another. Be ready when it comes, and be ready to learn from it. Don’t let one negative review become a disaster!