Consumer complaints about businesses are migrating from the watercooler to the Web.

From Facebook and Twitter to Yelp and FourSquare, consumers can sound off about a company to hundreds of friends and followers with a click of a button.

That's where online reputation management experts such as Christopher Lower come in. He and his wife own Maple Grove-based Sterling Cross Communications, helping Twin Cities restaurants, hotels and nonprofits monitor what's being said about them 24/7 and respond within minutes. Lower spoke with Whistleblower last week about this emerging trend.

Q Why do companies need help from experts such as yourself; can't they monitor sites themselves?

A Personally, yes. But do they have enough time to watch it 24/7? No. There's still a perception that, if I see it online nobody is going to see it, and I still have plenty of time to get my ducks in a row. Realize that 24 hours is an eternity online. They have to react right away and typically also on the platform or social media format where the comment was made.

Q What prompts a business to contact you?

A Sometimes they're facing a crisis, and so that will prompt them to call, which is OK, but there is always a sense of urgency. ... Case in point, we had one client who had a former contractor, very disgruntled, go on over 300 different sites and make negative comments about their business. One of his major clients called him up and said, "Have you seen what's being said about you out there -- what's the deal, do we need to pull our account?" He was going to start losing business because his reputation was so poor.

Q What's the worst thing you've seen happen to a business that was trashed online?

A They've closed ... because they think there's no way they can get out from under it. Some have to completely redo their brand and rebuild -- and that's a long-term process.

Q How has a business you've worked with benefited from online reviews?

A We work a lot with the hotel industry and, fortunately or unfortunately, nobody calls 1-800-Marriott anymore to book a room. It's all through Travelocity or Orbitz. And our hotel clients know, to the point where, if they are a three-and-a-half-star not a four-star, how much money they're losing to four-star hotels that are the same size and equivalent price range. It actually benefits them to have us come in and clean up the negative and build the positive. We've been able to move up a hotel to a full star rating.

Q The Internet has opened it up so people can say anything about a company. Do you think there should be limits on what people can say about businesses online?

A Actually, the courts will take care of that. The former contractor that made 300 negative reviews, we were able get 297 of them removed [working with sites] and the last three will come out, but we had to go to court and win a defamation case. ... [But] it can also help businesses get better. Case in point, we had a restaurant client that was actually opening restaurants in a different city and they went in and replaced a beloved location. They weren't really considering their audience and demographic. There were a bunch of food bloggers that didn't like them and kept complaining about them online. Finally, we invited all the complainers to the table, figuratively and literally, to come into the restaurant and change the menu. That was a positive outcome.

Q So where do you see this emerging presence of online sites and reviews going in the future?

A A lot of it's going to be micro-sites or niche. There's always going to be Twitter and Facebook and YouTube, and now Pinterest. But now you're starting to see small niche places like Untappd, a great site for beer and beer lovers. ... Just in the food and restaurant industry alone, there's probably 144 different social media sites or platforms people need to consider.

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141 • Twitter: @kellystrib