There’s no question that the so-called “social customer” has changed the balance of power. I think Dave Carroll, the creator of the famous United Breaks Guitars video said it best: “No customer is statistically insignificant.” Customers who are mistreated, or delighted, can freely post on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, or review sites.
For all the talk about authenticity, however, one of the growing problems in social media land is gaming the system. In a kind of social SEO, some of the posts and reviews you read don’t come from actual customers, but rather competitors and “black hat” reputation management companies that want to put their fingers on the feedback scales to influence buyers.
After a year-long investigation, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman recently fined 19 companies $350,000 for posting fake reviews. These companies agreed to stop, but I’ll wager it won’t make much of a dent in the problem.
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A Maritz Research study found that “one in four people believe the information available on ratings sites is unfair.” Even for the 5 most trusted sites (TripAdvisor, Zagat, OpenTable, Edmunds.com, Yelp), “more than a third of visitors were still cautious of information on these sites.”
Small business owners are especially frustrated. They don’t get a lot of reviews to begin with, so a few bad reviews (fake or not) can really hurt their reputation. Even good reviews, if part of a small sample, leave some consumers wondering if they can be trusted.
In fairness to general review sites, they are working hard to find and block fake reviews, using analytics technology. But, it’s like the arms race with spammers and SEO jockeys — you never win the war, you have to keep fighting.
In the ideal world, you would like to know whether a review was posted by a real customer or not. That’s why I prefer reviews on Amazon and Expedia. These sites have control of the sales process, so they can make sure only real customers are providing the feedback.
Customer Feedback to the Rescue
In the past few years the Voice of Customer (VoC) industry has picked up steam, generally positioned as part of the Customer Experience movement. Survey responses and comments are collected, analyzed and (hopefully) used to make improvements.
But this pile of feedback data can be used in another way — if published on the Internet. That’s the idea behind OpenTell, a new service of Mindshare, one of the biggest players in the VoC space. CEO John Sperry says the company has collected 300 million reviews so far for 15 brands that have about 20K locations. Reviews stream in at the rate of 140K per month. (Note: this is from all Mindshare customers, not just those using OpenTell thus far.)
By comparison, Yelp has “just” 42 million reviews, spread out over a huge number of businesses. So if you search for Yelp reviews on a specific restaurant you might get 1 or 2 reviews in the past month.
Let’s take the fast casual restaurant Costa Vida, an early OpenTell user, as an example. Do a Google search of “costa vida review provo utah” and you’ll find (as of this writing) 36 reviews on Google, 18 on Yelp and 2 on TripAdvisor. Click through, however, and you’ll notice only a handful were posted in the past year, yet all of the reviews count towards the star ratings presented by the review sites.
Contrast that with OpenTell, which offers 524 reviews in the last month alone, out of a total of 2,384. Plus, the assurance that all of them come from real customers.
You’ll also notice a handy date range slider. Thanks to a large volume of reviews, I can concentrate on reviews on the past month if I wish, because that’s a better indication of the kind of service I’m likely to receive now. You can even listen to comments, because that’s one of the feedback channels that Mindshare supports.
With OpenTell, in pilot mode with a few brands so far, companies can opt to publish the reviews they are already collecting. The catch: Mindshare requires that they publish all of them. No cherry picking!
Jeff Jacobson, Costa Vida’s COO, says they collect about 8,000 surveys per month across their 50+ locations. Thanks to the higher volume with OpenTell, surveys can be used to provide a more accurate and transparent picture of the quality of an individual restaurant. “One bad review in a sea of truth” is better than a biased and limited sample, he says.
While Jacobson can’t put a specific “ROI” on this initiative, it’s clear that OpenTell is part of the company’s strategy to improve the customer experience. Publishing reviews sends a message to current and prospective franchisees that the company is serious about authentic customer relationships and improvements.
As for Mindshare, Sperry hopes to grow OpenTell usage to 40 brands with 100,000 “rooftops.” I think this is a brilliant move that is a win for consumers, a win for brands and, oh yes, it makes money for Mindshare, too.
It will be interesting to see if other VoC vendors follow suit in the coming months. There are hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of reviews that could be put to use externally to give buyers better insight. Eventually it may become so commonplace that consumers will wonder why a brand doesn’t publish customer feedback. Do you have something to hide?