Monday, March 24, 2008

The Voodoo Reviews Do, Part Two

Spa operators have a conflicted relationship with online review sites. On the one hand, there’s few marketing modalities that are so powerful yet so inexpensive (read: mostly free.) On the other hand, there are few marketing modalities that are so utterly out of your control.

Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality Group likened publicity to “riding the tiger.” If you can stay on top, that tiger can take you places. Online review sites are like riding a pit bull. Because the pit bull is so much smaller than a tiger, it’s really, really hard to stay on top. Your feet are always dangling perilously close to that dog’s mouth. And it’s going at a flat-out run all the time. You can fall off. The only thing worse than riding the pit bull is realizing that the pit bull has gotten away and is tearing your business to pieces around the corner.

Here’s the way market leader Yelp describes its site: “Yelp is the fun and easy way to find, review and talk about what's great - and not so great - in your local area. It's about real people giving their honest and personal opinions on everything from restaurants and spas to coffee shops and bars.” Sounds harmless and lighthearted enough.

But we all know that review sites are subject to abuse. Competitors can create a pseudonym and post fake reviews trashing your business. This sort of thing makes spa owners crazy. It is exactly this nonsense that makes them throw up their hands and ignore online review sites altogether. I was working with a consulting client the other day who is trying to buy a business on the East Coast.
“What do their online reviews look like?” I asked. It’s a simple way to do some research on a possible acquisition, but just one of many things we look at. We keep the grains of salt close at hand.
“Well, they’re mixed,” replied the would-be buyer, with some trepidations.
“Is the owner actively managing them?” I inquired. The buyer said she’d find out.
In our next conversation, she reported, “She says that she just ignores those.”

I don’t blame her. Unfortunately, sticking your head in the cyber sand is a recipe for trouble.

I have to congratulate Yelp for coming up with programs for businesses that include very useful tools, such as an e mail alert whenever a new review is posted. Many business owners still don’t realize that you can contact Yelpers just by becoming one yourself. (That’s free.)

Because of features like this, Yelp has convinced me to give them money, even as their users alternately torment and delight me. Which means, as I have maintained in my past blogs, that Yelp is simply a mirror of the traditional customer relationship. Treat people well and they will do the right thing. Guarantee their satisfaction with your products and services. Make it right when you learn that you have done something poorly.

I have never asked a Yelper to change a review, no matter how nasty. I have simply contacted them and said, “I wish I’d known about this, and now that I do, I would like to make it right for you. Come back in and have the experience you deserved to have in the first place.” And most of them have responded the way customers traditionally do. They say, “I appreciate the fact that you contacted me. Okay, I’ll give you another chance.” And in every instance where we connected with the Yelper and got them to return, we found that the review was amended or updated. They often mention that they appreciate management’s commitment to customer service.

But wait. Just when I think I have my pit bull walking on a leash wearing a cute little “Preston Wynne Spa” sweater emblazoned with four and a half Yelp stars, I make a disturbing new discovery.

The term “viral marketing” has never been more apt than when describing online review sites. And like a virus, the Yelp community and “Yelpers” are constantly evolving. Of late, I’m worried that there is a new strain of Yelper emerging. I call her the “Super Reviewer.” She is a product, I fear, of too much fawning over the value of “user generated content.”

The Super Reviewer styles herself as a “real” reviewer. Even if she has visited your spa just once, she feels that her flaming is, to quote another famous source of user-generated content, “fair and balanced.” Unlike a normal customer, if she is contacted by the charbroiled business owner, she spurns offers of recompense, equating them to “bribes.” (There’s a worrisome thread in a Yelp community chat in which a couple of these folks discuss their disdain when restaurant owners attempt to curry their favor after a bad review with a redo or a comped meal. How dare we try to change their mind?)

Unlike a real reviewer, of course, the Yelper is spending their own money. How many visits would you make to my spa if you were disappointed or frustrated by the first? Probably just one. That’s another key difference between the amateur and the pro, in the world of reviews. A restaurant reviewer usually visits an establishment several times. (Ruth Reichl’s memoir of her days as the New York Times restaurant critic, Garlic and Sapphires, is a great account of the standards that apply in the “bigs.”)

My recent encounter with a Super Reviewer was a bit surreal. Yelpers often inject a bit of Facebooky “attitude” into their writing, and this review of our cellulite treatment crossed the line from saucy to snarky pretty quickly.

But I take all criticism seriously, regardless of the tone with which it is delivered. Because the messaging interface on Yelp is anonymous, I contacted “Princess” (no joke) with sincere apologies and an offer of a “do over.” This is SOP at our spa, where we guarantee guests’ satisfaction with our treatments. Her reply was polite but firm. The upshot: because of her impeccable standards of objectivity, she would have to stand by her review of our spa. She did offer, inexplicably, to give me an additional “star” for my customer service efforts.

Now this was a bizarre twist. We had taken her money, had not delivered the goods, and I was proffering recompense. I offered to provide her with a gift certificate to use at her convenience. All I needed, I wrote, was a real-world e mail address, and I could send her one of our convenient print-your-own gift certificates.

“Princess” declined once again, but she did suggest that I provide additional training for my employees. Stubbornly, I launched one more message, asking her cheerfully if she could recall the date of her visit so I could determine if her disappointing outcome occurred before or after a recent hands-on skills training for our body therapists. There was no reply. “Princess” had exhausted her patience with this pesky business owner. Her review sits on the website, unaltered, in all its “objective” glory.

During my 15 years in the facial treatment room, I “yelped” to my clients about businesses and restaurants that I enjoyed, hand-writing a page of recommendations when I heard they were visiting a favorite city. Yelp is tailor-made for my natural tendencies as a closet concierge. Yet as I Yelp, I find myself obeying my mom’s admonition, “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” I may make a minor criticism as part of an overall good review, but I can’t shake the visceral knowledge that business I am reviewing is someone’s livelihood. I’m motivated to write about businesses that I really enjoy, and it’s easy to just ignore businesses I don’t like. This does not mean I am a shrinking violet when it comes to customer service. I am more than willing to stamp my little foot in person, but I have not developed a taste for online vigilantism. There are usually ample channels for direct complaints that should precede a public flogging. Call me old fashioned, but “flaming” someone from an anonymous perch just seems cowardly.

One thing about creating businesses: the way we expect people to use them and the way they actually do are often very different. If the Super Reviewer is an incipient trend, a mutation in the Yelp community, it could hijack the “fun” part of their site and sour businesses on the value of the Yelp merchant services model. After all, that’s where the money is—if I’m not mistaken. If I am denied the opportunity to apply real-world customer satisfaction “laws” in the virtual world, my willingness to sign checks for enhanced merchant services will wane.

Yelp provides lots of helpful prompts for businesses who are responding to Yelp reviews. “A three star review means the customer was satisfied. Keep it short and sweet,” advised a pop-up as I began a message to “Princess.” Apparently there are plenty of business owners who freak out the first time they go to the site and read the vitriol that may have accumulated there. In fact, Yelp is so determined to save you from yourself, Ms. Freaked Out Merchant, that it limits you to five messages a day and won’t let you message a reviewer if they have not replied to your last one. It seems that Yelp spends a lot of time thinking about how to protect its users from the folks who operate the businesses they have pilloried.

Thanks to the internet, and its endless supply of free user-generated content, consumer vigilantism has entered a golden age. The sheer reach of review sites flatter users into confusing their opinions with objectivity. One Yelper I noticed this evening has 50 photographs posted on her page, mostly of her. Rampant self-absorption is the heart and soul of every social networking site, but I wonder if Yelp can keep the Beast from co-opting its essential mission.

Consumer narcissism seems to underly an increasingly accepted societal norm: that those of us who operate businesses that serve the public, by this very act, relinquish our rights to be treated with civility. It’s as if someone revised the Golden Rule to exempt anyone accepting money for goods or services.

Maybe Yelp can start an online support group for us.

2 comments:

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Nami Spa said...

Very insightful article. We have had great success with Yelp, including hosting an event for Yelp Elites. We have also experienced a few strange super critical reviews and even fake bad reviews from competitors. I believe that most people using Yelp take the crazier critical reviews with a grain of salt and that ultimately Yelp is a great tool that can give your business a lot of exposure for free. We have even posted a link to our great reviews on our home page.

www.namispa.com