Friday, December 9, 2016

Reputation Blackmail

If you can kidnap someone's reputation and hold it for ransom, you can make a lot of dough.

The latest gag on the Internet, driven by this whole noxious "social media" crap, is reputation blackmail.   Sites which purport to be "review sites" offer up "reviews" by folks like you and me, of anything from restaurants, to lawyers, to doctors, to plumbers, hotels, or whatever.

At first, this sounds like harmless fun.   After all, why not be able to collate reviews about various service sector organizations and then provide that data to consumers?   You are doing a social good!

Or maybe not.  You don't make money by doing social goods.

Over time (or perhaps by design) these sites have morphed into something else - something very, very nasty.   The basic modus operandi is to approach a restaurant, hotel, lawyer, doctor, plumber, electrician, carpenter or other service-sector provider and offer them an opportunity to advertise on your site.   And they point out (or it is pointed out to you) that you may have some negative information about you listed on their site.  Every service provider eventually pisses off someone, so at least one negative review is inevitable.

For a low, low monthly fee of $499, you can bring up your "rating score" and also by having friends sign up, you can get testimonials, groom your listing, and bring up your "score" so you get more business!  And mysteriously, the negative reviews will disappear from their site.  More than one online review site has tried this practice - holding your reputation for ransom.

If you don't play along, well, you will be screwed.   Your score will remain low and negative reviews will remain on your listing and you will lose business as a result.

Or would you?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  While some service sectors are very sensitive to customer reviews, others are pretty immune.   For example, I mostly write Patent cases (or did anyway) for large corporations or people referred to me by word-of-mouth.   Online review sites are not steering traffic my way, nor would I want them to (phone calls from John Q. Public are usually a waste of time).

For doctors, the same is also true.   Good luck "shopping around" for a good doctor - at least where I live.  Most have "waiting lists" for new patients, and if you are accepted to their practice, you are the lucky one, not them.   One reason I think the "doctor review site" never took off is that the doctors have the upper hand, for the most part.

For others, the issue is more sensitive.   Many clueless Facebooking types go to review sites to determine whether a restaurant is any good or if a plumber is honest.  And the opinions they get are from their fellow brain-dead social media types, who will vote down a restaurant because of some trivial concern, or because they didn't understand the cuisine.   For example, a local Mexican place here (run by real Mexicans) serves tacos al pastore, which is a small corn tortilla with barbecued pork, raw onions and cilantro.   That's it.  And that's how they make it in Mexico.

Some yahoo goes on Yelp! and says, "The durn tacos have no cheese on 'em!" and downvotes the place.   What he expected was some enormous chalupa like he gets at Taco Bell.   You are going to listen to his opinion about anything?  But again, for this business, his opinion doesn't matter.  The place is packed all day long and most of the customers don't speak English, much less go on Yelp! for restaurant reviews.  Locals and visitors to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center pack the place at lunch time.  The restaurant doesn't need no stinking "online review" to succeed!

But other service providers don't have that "must have" appeal, and they get caught up in this online review process, either trying to groom their image online, get negative reviews removed, or respond to negative reviews.  And sometimes, this can be such a distraction that it can sink a business.

The most famous of the latter was Amy's Baking Company, which became TV-famous after its owner responded to bad reviews by threatening customers online.  The restaurant eventually closed.   Their problem, however, wasn't negative online reviews, but poor food and service, as evidenced by the episode in Kitchen Nightmares.   Better food and better service would have brought in customers more than responding to online complaints.   But people get caught up in this nonsense and suddenly social media seems more important than real life.   On social media, all that matters is how things appear to be, not how they are.   Sort of like how coke-heads live.

An attorney got into similar trouble trying to dispute a negative review on an attorney review site.  In responding to a complaint by a client, he let slip that the client, a stewardess, had actually beat up a fellow employee, making her ineligible for unemployment benefits.  This lead to a disciplinary proceeding for disclosing client confidences.

An online retailer of really, really useless crap made headlines by charging a customer $3500 for posting a negative review, and when the customer refused to pay, they tried to destroy their credit rating.  Such draconian measures, of course, backfire in a big way, as the Streisand Effect kicks in, and rather than attenuating negative attention, it amplifies it.

These sort of examples illustrate two things about online review sites.  First, if you engage them, you have to engage them fully, and carefully groom and manage your profile online.   Best to do this by NOT attacking your customers for leaving negative reviews!   Second, if you don't engage these review sites, the resulting damage to your business may be..... nothing.  If you run a good business and have a good product or service, the world will come to you.   This is cold comfort for those starting out in the business world, however.

You may be better off just ignoring review sites and not reading reviews.   The best lawyers in the country are not listed on attorney review sites.  If they are, they are given ridiculously low reviews or have inaccurate information.   Ruth Bader Ginsburg is rated a "6.5" out of 10 on an attorney review site, simply because it is the default score for someone who has no data on their site.  I doubt she is worried about it, though.

Myself, if I was running a restaurant, I might be inclined to hold a contest for who can write the worst review possible - offering a free meal once a month to the person writing the most scathing review.   The Brits used to have this sort of sense of humor in their real estate listings - listing a cottage for rent as "dingy and depressing" when it was anything but.   You either get that sort of joke or you don't.

Quite frankly, the customers you are going to get from review sites are going to be your worst customers.  These are people who are afraid and fear is never a good thing, as I have mentioned before.   They are scared you will rip them off.  They are scared of getting even a bad meal!  And they likely will never be happy and always have one finger on the cell phone ready to fire off a negative review.

If you go chasing reviews on review sites, your business will suffer.   You don't get paid based on reviews, you get paid based on work done.   So my advice would be to walk away from review sites and ignore their game, if you can.   It is only when we validate those sites by responding do they have power.  It is how you deal with bullies.   And they are bullies.

If you do engage such sites, which allow owners to reply to comments, be civil and brief.  The best retailers will say something like, "I am sorry about your bad experience, please call me at 1-800-XXX-XXXX to discuss how we can make it better!" or something like that.   This shows the readers of the bad review that you are a reasonable person and maybe the person posting the bad review is the one who is unreasonable.  Beware, though, since reviews are anonymous, several people may call you looking for a freebie!

As a consumer, I would use review sites with trepidationAs a source of useful information, they are often lacking.  The "top reviewed" service may have floated to the top as the result of careful grooming, fake reviews, or just paying for the privilege.   Often the "10/10" rated services are the ones who have spent a lot of time grooming their image online.   And there usually is a reason they have to groom their image online.   They are depending on a lot of traffic from strangers, who will use their service and then never been seen again.   Companies that cater to this mentality will never provide good service, as they don't have to.

Want a good restaurant?  Ask a local where the locals go, and then try to discern whether the person you are asking even knows what a good meal is.   Want a referral from a plumber or electrician?  Ask your neighbor who they used - and take a look at the work done if you can.  Word-of-mouth is a powerful tool, and the powers-that-be want to co-opt it.  However, online reviews are not word-of-mouth as you have no idea of whose mouth, if any, they are coming from.   Odds are, half of on-line reviews are fake.  The other half are basically worthless.

Is this worth losing your mind over, if you are a retailer?