A recent issue of the Financial Times has a column suggesting that 'online reviews tell us less than we think'.
The column's thrust is not so much on the lack of information but on potentially misleading reviews, some of which diminish the merchant. The article starts off by noting derogatory reviews on the website reviewcentre.com of UK retailer Laura Ashley that, if true, would provide a strong disincentive to those looking to buy Laura Ashley products. Incredibly, of more than 100 reviews nearly 90 were negative while the rest were positive.
When the FT columnist queried staff at the retailer the response offered was an expectedly vigorous defense of the brand with a trotting out of figures that attested to their quality and the presence of strong in-house program to respond to kudos and complaints but with little to no desire to trawl the web to monitor content at review sites such as the foregoing. The company does have a fairly robust social media strategy with over 17,000 Twitter followers and 27,000 Facebook "likes". Testament to its success are the uptick in sales for the first six months of the year.
While it is hard to infer from the above that third party user generated content (UGC) is not reflective of reality, as most customers take a look at sites prior to purchasing a product or service, Britain's Advertising Standards Authority earlier this year banned the largest UGC website TripAdvisor from claiming that all reviews on its site were from real travelers, or were honest, real or trusted.
What is surprising is that there are virtually no reviews either on TripAdvisor or any other third party UGC from complainants who have subsequently gone back to post a positive experience from the service or product provider resulting from their complaint. Businesses have a strong incentive to respond and attempt to assuage the sentiments of a genuinely dis-satisfied customer; and most do just that.
Apropos the foregoing is a story in the Wall Street Journal about the owner of a high-end travel agency who got nowhere after over 40 minutes on hold. She then resorted to tweeting "her displeasure. To her surprise, a Citibank agent tweeted right back saying "send us your phone number and we'll call you right now." Someone did and the TA owner became a Citibank convert.
Perhaps providing for posting directly on to a service provider's social media platform with transparency for all could go some way towards allaying fears of fake reviews, good or bad. While any and all responses from merchants accrue to their benefit those who are remiss in responding will likely suggest an obvious inference: there is something to hide. Vijay is Chief Operating Officer and part-founder of Apple Core Hotels- a chain of 5 midtown Manhattan hotels offering value and comfort in the heart of the city. Member of the board of Directors - Hotel Association of New York.