For most of the last century, consumers believed what a company said in its advertisements. A business might hire an advertising agency on Madison Avenue (ala “Mad Men”) to come up with a slick slogan delivered by a celebrity in order to influence what the customer would buy.

The Internet has allowed society to move from this one way medium to a more conversational one. It is not surprising that 97% of customers review products online before buying. But, what may be a surprise is the exact information they are researching. Consumers are not only looking at the latest features, prices and availability. They want to know what other consumers are saying about the product and the company. Today, these reviews have a higher level of credibility than any company directed advertising and most directly influence what the consumer eventually buys. 92% of consumers say they trust “earned media” (word-of-mouth and recommendations from friends and family) above all other forms of advertising.

This peer review system has become familiar for anyone using sites such as Yahoo! Local, Amazon, eBay, Trip Advisor or Yelp. Consumers value the “human voice” more than any corporate messaging. In addition, Yahoo! search engine results about a particular company or product never fade; they can be found forever!

These days, the immediate electronic delivery of products and fast worldwide shipments of goods makes most products commodities since they are available across vast geographies. Price competition has become intense. This presents a huge challenge for most small business owners as they now have to compete to make a profit against the entire world. As a result, the only truly sustainable competitive advantage for any small business is their customer service. 70% of customers are willing to spend more with companies that provide excellent customer service. It has become their most powerful marketing tool.

Make no mistake. Consumers are talking online about your business. The familiar statistic was that an unhappy customer would tell 7 people. Now through social media and online review sites, they can tell 7 million people!  But a small business owner can use this to their advantage to boost their customer service by following these 4 steps:

Read the remainder of this article at Yahoo! Small Business Advisor.