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Is the Internet for complainers?

November 17, 2010
Customer Service reviews and ratings are now e...

Image by michaeljung via Flickr

So a buddy of mine who’s been reading the blog got a hold of me a few weeks back and said, “I have an idea for you. Write about the effects of unfair negative reviews.” You know the kind… you’re checking out a product or service on-line and you see someone posts a review on QVC or Amazon or Best Buy or Trip Advisor or Google that just eviscerates the thing you’re looking into buying.

Naturally it’s an anonymous review for the most part, let’s face it, do we really know who Skippy from Intercourse, PA is? All we know is he seems really unhappy with the widget you want to buy. And because of that review, suddenly you’re questioning this purchase – regardless of the two rather tepid positive reviews that bookend Skippy’s rant.

My buddy has twice filled me in on how anonymous reviews have undercut his business – once when he was the restaurant manager for a new high-end establishment and again as he was getting ready to close a fairly large corporate insurance deal.

In the first case, the local newspaper printed an op-ed piece from a dissatisfied customer of his restaurant. His main concern was that the restaurant wasn’t given an opportunity to respond in a sidebar or follow-up article. In the second case, after holding two very good meetings with two top officials at a corporate firm looking to use his insurance services, and receiving assurances that the contract was essentially a done deal, he was notified by a mid-level administrator that the company would not be using his services. The mid-level admin had done a search on his company and had found some Internet postings that painted in a bad light the services of the insurer. The mid-level admin was good enough to pass along the negative reviews, which were, wait for it… anonymous.

I’m of two minds when it comes to the power of the Internet and its ability to move public opinion. On one side, I love the openness, that anyone can say whatever they want, either trashing or praising your product. I think it’s a great way to separate the wheat from the chaff. On the other side, studies have shown (and my blog has validated this – “dislike!”) that people are more likely to be inspired to write a negative review that a positive one, meaning, if people like your product, they’re less inclined to post a positive review, since they’re happy that your product works and that’s where their interest ends. On the other hand, if someone lays out good money for your product and is dissatisfied, there’s a greater likelihood they’re going to raise hell as publicly as possible.

I’ve never written a positive or negative review on a website. I guess I’m just too lazy or laid back. I do read them occasionally while I’m doing product research, and I read them with a HUGE grain of salt. I tend to take the opinion of expert reviewers on sites like or over the anonymous lay reviewers on open opinion sites.

That’s not to say I never take a gander at what the great unwashed have to say about a product or service. If I can’t find a formal review, I’ll check out what others have said, say for a local restaurant or entertainer. However, in the back of my mind I’m wondering just how much I can trust my fellow Internet citizens. Here’s a good rule of thumb when it comes to the Web-based opinions of the masses – the less literate and more vitriolic a review, the greater chance I’m not going to trust the source. However, if the review seems even-tempered and well thought out, I will give it weight.

I suspect that for my buddy’s enterprises he had the misfortune of having been reviewed by some fairly articulate writers with an axe to grind. I went to his restaurant when it first opened. It was good, though in need of some minor improvements (most notably a better head chef, who’s middle name I’m certain is “Bland”). As for his insurance venture, more than likely the services provided did not meet the needs of the offended company or perhaps a previous sales rep had promised more than he could deliver.

So what can a manufacturer or service provider do? Monitor the review boards and answer the complaints of the posters. It’s a tedious and semi-ridiculous task, but it goes a looooooooong way to prove that your listening to your customers and acknowledging their concerns. Be upfront about who you are and that you’re answering on behalf of the offended product or service (don’t feel the need to give out personal information) and then professionally respond, either by saying you’ll look into the issue or pointing out where there could have been user error or where the product has recently been improved.

Now if your product or service really is crap, then you’re screwed. The great part about the Internet is that it does a wonderful job of exposing frauds and second-rate products, which is why I don’t think I could ever suggest we kill the anonymous reviews. Yes, some ranter is going to cost you money, but if you handle it with care and prove that your product or service holds real value, you can turn a negative into a positive – all without buying advertising or putting a hit out on a snot-nosed punk reviewer.

(Video NSFW)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Michael Hensh permalink
    November 20, 2010 10:30 PM

    Nicely written Mike. I’ve learned something by reading this, thank you.

  2. November 23, 2010 2:05 PM

    I love the amount of outlets we have today in Web 2.0 especially when talking about reviews. Just like junkyard scrappers, you must sift through the trash to find anything of value. With the emergence of smartphones, immediate access to detailed reviews mold your typical passive shopper who prefers to browse into an active buyer possessing expertise on any and all products.

    For example, my birthday was yesterday. My family wanted to buy me 1 of the new motion-sensor technologies for video games- Playstation 3 Move or the Xbox 360 Kinect. They decided to buy me the Move (which I ended up loving coincidentally) based on some online reviews.

    Reviews helped me again that same day. I went to an electronics store and was about to buy a 2nd controller for the Move (kinda disappointed that it only came w/ 1, & the Kinect requires no controllers, but I digress) when I spotted a few new releases for the Move. I was at the register, about to buy a fighting game that seemed fun, when I decided to check out a review just before finalizing the purchase. And thank God I did, since it had a plethora of terrible reviews.

    When people complain online about a product/service, I tend to find it most frequented on forums- aka a community of complainers. Misery loves company. And you’re correct, people are more likely to leave negative feedback rather than positive. It’s the same psychology behind protests or anti-groups. When things turn out differently than expected, if people’s standards for a product/service were higher than it actually turned out, when people are unhappy, they complain. Complaining is an individual’s expression that they want a change. If we are happy, we don’t want anything to change. Without a need for change, an outward expression of this dissatification is less of a priority.

    Another positive impact of online reviews/forums is that companies can see what the public wants. If there is a consensus opinion/complaint, companies can get the instantaneous feedback to take into consideration. A shoddy product will receive shoddy reviews. Organizations choosing to adapt based on online feedback will provide more favorable products/services than ever before.

    If there are negative reviews out there, first determine they’re reasoning. If they use valid points and their arguments lean more on logic & specific details rather than moaning and groaning, take what they say into consideration. Consult multiple reviews and do your homework before making a purchase decision.

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