In the Face of Ruinous Online Reviews, Businesses Today Are Turning the Tables
If the internet has created a space where consumers are free to sound off at will on sites like Yelp, to what extent do business owners have the right to respond?
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Though it may require some tongue-biting or fist-clenching from time to time, most business owners live and die by the motto that the customer is always right.
The emergence of online review sites like Yelp, however -- which were developed to turn up the volume on consumer feedback -- has pushed this age-old dynamic into uncharted territories.
With anonymous complaints they deem untrue (at best) or commercially devastating (at worst), today, business owners are looking to take back power.
This month, the Supreme Court will hear a case brought against Yelp by small-business owner Joe Hadeed, who alleges that seven anonymous and fraudulent reviewers lacerated sales at his carpet cleaning company.
Hadeed, who says none of the reviews match any time, location or sales data he has on file, wants the identities of the reviewers revealed; Yelp argues that they are protected by the First Amendment.
But Hadeed isn't alone. In addition to a storm of similar lawsuits circling Yelp, a handful of businesses and service-centric startups are taking action to stem abuse at the hands of online trolls.
If the internet has created a space where consumers are free to sound off at will, the question then becomes: to what extent do business owners have the right to retaliate?
A Two-Way Street
At San Francisco-headquartered Airbnb, reviews are a two-way street.
While the company encourages guests to evaluate their accommodations, it also offers hosts the opportunity to appraise their guests.
As a peer-to-peer community, this makes sense -- which is not to say that paying customers don't feel uneasy about having the lens fixed on them.
But consumers have always been rated by businesses in one way or another, explains Michael Fertik, founder of Reputation.com, a digital management firm in Redwood City, Calif. This is just the latest incarnation of being blacklisted from a restaurant, for instance, or receiving a poor credit score.
And more and more companies, like transportation startup Uber, are treading a similar path.
Though Uber consumers may be unaware, in addition to being able to rate their drivers, they are being surreptitiously rated, too. Reportedly, a five-star system maintained by the Uber fleet takes into account whether passengers have given misleading directions, are too drunk, or mistreat their drivers.
However, such a system can come with unknowing costs to paying customers. One Washington, D.C., Uber driver even admitted to a passenger that he'd responded to her request over another because "her score was so high."
In recent years, Airbnb has also taken additional measures to curtail anonymity within its community, which likely resulted in disastrous situations like this, where a young woman's apartment was "burglarized, vandalized and thoroughly trashed" by a guest trolling the site under the guise of a pseudonym.
The company introduced Verified ID last April, a feature that encourages users to link their online identities (Google, Facebook and LinkedIn) with offline data, including personal information or a scanned photo ID.
While Fertik believes that anonymity encourages free speech without repercussion, he argues that, generally, consumers give more credence to online reviews that they perceive to be attached to an actual person.
"People appreciate the idea that you're attaching your name to your commentary," he said. "It gives it more oomph."
And because reviews are crucial to the livelihoods of businesses, it's not a question of "fighting back" against negative comments, Fertik says, so much as enhancing the positive.
One way in which businesses can change the conversation, he suggests, is by actively collecting their own reviews from satisfied customers.
"Some Customers Need to Be Fired."
While some businesses are merely evaluating their consumers, others are giving them the boot.
Restaurant reservation coordinator OpenTable, for instance, has a penalty system in place for untoward diners: patrons who flake on reservations four times over the course of a year without cancelling in advance will have their accounts swiftly deactivated.
"Some customers," Fertik acknowledges, "need to be fired." However, he maintains that this practice should be "an absolute last resort reserved for particularly abusive outliers."
In one scenario, however, an OpenTable user complained about getting sacked prematurely.
Her account was suspended without warning, she said, because she arrived early on several occasions -- or perhaps because she was seated immediately without checking in.
Tiffany Fox, senior director of corporate communications at OpenTable, explained that the no-show policy exists on top of reminders that are sent to patrons 36 or 24 hours in advance of their reservations -- which can be cancelled or modified instantly.
In the event of an error as described above, Fox says that consumers are welcome to dispute their no-shows, and that attendance can usually be verified via credit card receipts or, in the event of cash payment, by reaching out to the restaurant directly.
Nevertheless, the Yelp suit, as well as the shifting way in which companies like Airbnb, Uber and OpenTable are assessing their users, shows that today it's businesses -- not consumers -- who are increasingly seeking the final word.