Checking out online reviews and complaints is now a huge part of how consumers buy. That was once true of big-ticket items, such as cars or cruises, but now it's true as well for many products and services, from books to faucet parts. People want to know what other people think before they buy. Rule of thumb: The more expensive or intrusive the product or service, the more attention consumers pay to what other consumers think about it, i.e., reviews.

So what percentage of your prospects do you think are reading about you online before they email or call your company? No one can put an exact number to it because that number's always changing and is generally trending up. It's probably safe to say that a majority of the people who consider doing business with your company have read the reviews that appear on Angie's List, Google, Yelp, and the many other websites that list that material. Positioning your company for success here is crucial. Here are some tips for doing that.

1. Feedback Loop

Just acquiring positive written or filmed feedback from your customers isn't enough. A message sent, but never received, is pointless. Instead, make these work for you. If you have a filmed testimonial from a client, post it on YouTube or DailyMotion.com. And don't pass on the opportunity to take advantage of video testimonials by using the title, description, and tag in strategic ways. Give them names and tags that reflect the searches your customers are doing. That will lift your place in organic search rankings. Don't make the mistake of naming your videos "XYZ Home Improvement Testimonial." Call them "XYZ Company Reviews" or "XYZ Company Complaints." That will pop you to the top when homeowners search using those key phrases. Instead of finding independent reviews or complaints posted by others, consumers will find your planned promotional content, strategically planted.

2. Reviews Are Gold

Don't assume that people are going to write and post reviews just because they were well-treated and liked your product. You have to ask and you have to make it convenient. And all those customers out there singing your praises does more than boost your ego. It also boosts your page standings in organic search. One company I work with hosts a monthly contest with its sales and marketing staff. They offer a substantial cash reward to the employee who racks up the highest number of positive online reviews in a calendar month. Winners find that an iPad or other tablet computer already logged onto the review site make it simple and easy for a customer to accommodate.

3. Friend Me

Upload before-and-after photos to your company Facebook page. More importantly, have your customers upload photos of their project to their Facebook pages. This will spread your content in all directions, bringing your company to the attention of countless consumers otherwise well beyond your reach. You'll gain exposure every time someone "likes" your customer's new post. This compelling marketing material will reach countless people within your customer's personal social network and those networks of families and friends. You may even find yourself with a viral hit. Better still, all this is done in a way that's informal and casual, meaning it's likely to be taken a lot more seriously than direct mail, telemarketing, or canvassing, which can often be regarded by homeowners as unwelcome.

Online reviews and complains have truly become part of the consumer buying process. You can either take advantage of this or you can fall victim to it by refusing to understand or respond. So put these tips to use as soon as possible.

—Sales and marketing consultant Tony Hoty has been a home improvement company salesperson and owner. Visit his website http://tonyhoty.com/ or reach him at tony@tonyhoty.com or 888.447.3969.