Before you write that scathing review, before you threaten to sue, stop, cool down and read this article. It could save you a world of trouble.
About a week ago, Mike Blumenthal drew my attention to this Google Maps Help Group Thread in which a citizen was attempting to avoid being sued by a business owner over a negative review. This litigious situation is becoming increasingly common news and I’ve determined that 2 components go into its creation.
Component 1 is the unhappy customer who feels he has no recourse to the business owner whose company served him rancid butter, overcharged him for a tuneup or treated him with unpardonable rudeness. In the absence of personal confrontation, the unhappy customer vents his angst at one of the many user review entities, generally never having made any attempt to alert the management or the owner to his dissatisfaction.
Component 2 is the mortified business owner who sees his professional reputation damaged or his business’ name tarnished and, in a desperate effort to punish or silence the person who has embarrassed him, jumps from 0 to 10 by threatening to sue…without a single effort at peaceful conflict resolution ever having been attempted.
I have no idea if what the customer in the Google Maps Help Group thread wrote in his review would legally be considered defamation or libel. I’m not a lawyer, but I am interested in the process of mediation and I have two questions to ask:
Do you need to stand by your words on principle? Do you feel you are protecting the public from dangerous or criminal business owners, or is it possible that your experience with a business was the result of someone having a bad day…maybe even the result of you having a bad day? Must your review remain intact, word for word, for the common good and are you willing to go to court to defend free speech and the public over your negative review of your neighborhood pizza place? Or would you be willing to seek a personal resolution that both you and the business owner walk away from feeling relatively okay? I ask you.
To Business Owners:
Do you really want to go to court? Few people enjoy it. Do you really want to take hours, weeks, months or years of time out of your busy schedule to sit anxiously in comfortless legal offices and courtrooms? Do you really want to hand over wads of money to a lawyer? What will you win at the end of all the hoopla and irretrievable wasted time? The disappearance of the negative review so that no further potential customers can see it? What if you could reach that goal without having to bother the justice system or pay out your life’s blood to an attorney? Would you be willing to take this easier route? I ask you.
There will be cases in which negative reviews are part of a vicious and illegal surfeit of spam (see locksmiths) and must be dealt with legally or algorithmically, and there will be cases in which large companies are so rich and powerful (and so totally clueless about the finesse involved in positive reputation management) that they will simply try to crush anyone who annoys them. But I’m not going to speak to those extremes. I’m speaking here to the average dissatisfied customer and the average embarrassed business owner. I want to give you the tools for sane and decent conflict resolution so you can get back to your normal life and clear the courtroom of cases that simply don’t belong there.
Edit, Delete and Owner Response – These Are Your Tools for Effective Conflict Resolution in the Land of User Reviews
So, you’ve left the negative review. You’ve really told it like it is, sounding off about the offending business and perhaps even adding a few colorful epithets to illustrate how you really feel about this local business. Okay. And now, the business owner has found your review and is so upset, he’s just informed you that he’s going to sue you. He may be trying to scare you, and you may be unclear about what your actual legal rights are, but chances are, both of you would probably like the whole situation to be resolved and go away. If ‘yes’, then keep reading.
The top 8 user review entities, as defined by David Mihm’s most recent Local Search Ranking Factors report, in which I participated, each offer you different degrees of power towards bringing about a resolution that both parties ought to be able to live with.
Here’s How It Works
You, the business owner, discover a totally agonizing review that you feel is unfair to your business. Note that I say unfair. If you know your employees are goof-offs and should be fired for serving soup with a fly in it to a valued patron, a negative review is not unfair – it’s just embarrassing. Whether unfair or embarrassing, many of the top 8 review entities give you the opportunity to respond to that disgruntled customer, personally.
You, the disgruntled customer may then read the owner response and realize that he’s truly sorry for your bad experience and has a reasonable excuse for the bad experience you had with his business or is simply taking time to apologize, in hopes that your view of him and his business will soften a bit. Many of the top 8 review entities give you the opportunity to either edit your review or simply remove it.
Which Review Sites Let You Respond, Edit Or Remove?
I spent several hours researching this list to get accurate data, but if I’ve made any errors, I hope the companies will offer corrections:
Owner Respond: Yes
Delete Reviews: No
Edit Reviews: No
*This data offered as a correction by a Yelp employee recently. At the time of publication, I was given different information from a different Yelp employee.
Owner Respond: Yes
Delete Reviews: Yes
Edit Reviews: No
*In order to have a TripAdvisor editor delete a review, you must email them at email@example.com
Owner Respond: Yes
Delete Reviews: Yes
Edit Reviews: Yes
*To get a review deleted email customer service at firstname.lastname@example.org and they’ll take it down for you.
Owner Respond: Yes
Delete Reviews: Yes
Edit Reviews: Yes
Owner Respond: Yes
Delete Reviews: No
Edit Reviews: Yes
*CitySearch’s review deletion policy states:
We only remove reviews that violate our terms and conditions. We do not remove reviews on request.If you want a certain review removed, because you believe it violates our terms, it can be submitted to email@example.com.
Owner Respond: Yes
Delete Reviews: Yes
Edit Reviews: Yes
*Yahoo’s Review Deletion Policy States:
If you wish to completely delete your review:
1. Go to the review that you wrote.
2. Click “Report Abuse.”
3. In the feedback part of the form, let us know that you would like your review deleted.
After your account information is verified, your review will be removed.
Owner Respond: No ***SEE UPDATE, Just Below
*As was illustrated in the Google Maps Help Group thread, there may be difficulty in automatically deleting a review. The customer deleted his review from his LBC account, but it continued to appear in Google Maps and he no longer had the power to edit it to tone it down. However, as of yesterday, I noted that Google has finally deleted the offending review from Maps. So, perhaps this is a process that takes a few days. Important to know.
***As of 8/2010, Google began allowing owner responses to Google-based reviews. This represented a huge change in Google’s policy. Owners cannot respond to reviews culled from third party sources, but can now respond to all reviews left within Google Maps/Place pages.
Owner Respond: Yes
Delete Reviews: No
Edit Reviews: Yes
The above list should help both business owners and their customers to understand what power is being given to them by the various review entities to communicate with one another, within the review medium, and work to reach a resolution with which both parties are satisfied.
I sympathize with business owners who are feeling their way around the delicate process of responding to public complaints. Expressing regret, taking responsibility or offering a meaningful explanation can be truly challenging. Let’s take a quick look at examples of how to respond poorly and how to respond well:
From A Very Bad Owner Response:
Your FALSE statements prove that you are not suited to be a food critic and I would be even more upset if I thought anyone in the valley read your garbage writing. Then again, how much skill does it take to take pictures of your lunch and write about it. Any fool with a camera phone, pen, and paper can do that. Thank you for taking the time to dine in our restaurant. I hope you can find a better parking spot next time since we have people lining up for my grandmotherâ€™s recipes with â€œno flavorâ€.
If you want to avoid looking like a self-involved and self-righteous person, avoid sarcasm and avoid shifting the blame onto the reviewer. If you follow the comments on the post I’ve linked to, you will see how foolish the business owner has made himself in the eyes of readers. Don’t do this to yourself!
Here’s a much more positive scenario described by a Yelp Reviewer who altered his negative review after receiving a positive message from the business owner:
I had reviewed Gandolfo’s in Eastlake a couple days after they opened, and they were pretty poor on their service, and I noted a lot of the details in my review. I also gave them the benefit of the doubt that it was a new store and probably just needed to get the service personnel up to speed. Then, about a month later, I got a PM from the owner inviting me to come back, and saying that they had taken to heart my comments. I went back yesterday, and they moved up from 2 stars to 4. It made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.”
Things are best when everyone feels all warm and fuzzy inside, definitely.
And finally, a very good Owner Response to a customer who refused to be satisfied:
After researching the situation, an Assistant. General Manager talked to the guest the day they checked out about the issues she had in her room. He asked the guest, why she didnâ€™t let us know of these problems upon arriving to the room? The guest said she was too busy. He told her we could have moved her to another room or sent someone to re-clean her room, After all, the guest was here several days. He apologized to her and generously gave her half off her stay. She was not happy with that, but he told her that we could have corrected the problem if she had told us the first day she was here… It only takes a couple of minutes to let us know. We have maintenance and housekeeping here every day, 18 hours a day.
I would be happy to speak with the guest further.
I especially love this example, not just because it shows the concern and diligence of the business owner, but also because it makes the resounding statement that the hotel employees are there, in person, to hear from a dissatisfied guest, ready to find resolution right then and there…no need to go to a computer just to have your say. And this brings us to my final points.
Ending On A Philosophical Note
The bulk of negative reviews strike me as a product of total communication breakdown. If the customer wasn’t too shy, too uncertain or too unempowered to make their complaints known at the time of service, chances are, many negative reviews would never make it to the web. By the same token, if business owners were given the grace of a personal confrontation with an unhappy customer before reading a public condemnation of their company on the web, chances are, the fury that provokes a threat of legal action would never be ignited.
Once these negative actions have already taken place, customer and owner are left in the weak and immature position of having to hire legal mediation to resolve their issues – like hiring a baby sitter – when they probably could have settled the whole matter themselves, privately. We are all adults here.
The good news is that even when a matter like this goes public, many of the major review entities are giving the interested parties a chance to make the dialogue of resolution public, too. Both reviewer and reviewee can end up coming off as reasonable, fair and decent if the conversation is handled in an adult and rational manner. It’s win-win for everyone.
The advent of user reviews has tossed both business owners and citizens into a tumultuous new situation that nobody really asked for. The profits of the review entities are being made on the ability or inability of people to navigate the world of opinion and reputation on a public stage for all to see. Some people are carrying their new roles off with aplomb, while others are making themselves objects of ridicule. I’m sympathetic to the problems and am also quick to see the potential benefits thoughtful reviews can provide to everyone.
But, I am especially eager for people to find a happy medium of dignity in this novel scenario. The tools of conflict resolution are in your hands, and stand between you and the unseemly, unpleasant ‘solution’ of legal a-do and expenditure. Use the tools. Your life and the web will be better for it.
Flickr credit to greekadman
The word on the web is that if you only read one article on Local Search this year, make sure it’s David Mihm’s Local Search Ranking Factors, just published today.
What Is It?
Local Search Ranking Factors is an in-depth survey inaugurated in 2008 by David Mihm. The survey brings together dedicated Local Search marketers from North America and Europe (including my humble self) and prompts them to give their opinions on the factors that have most impact on how a business ranks in Local Search results.
David does an exceptional job creating the questions and an extremely meritorious job of presenting the answers to the public in a user-friendly format. It was a privilege to participate in LSFR again this year and I’m very happy that this will be an annual opportunity for sharing and learning. Now, go read it!
Working as a web designer, SEO and copywriter over the years, I’ve come to believe firmly in good fits for specific projects. Find a firm that is in alignment with your company values, quickly grasps your company voice and shares your beliefs that the promotion of your business will really be a benefit to some group of people and I think you’re more likely to end up with a presentation of your business that has real heart and soul than if you simply pick any old firm because the price is right, they live near you or some other relatively meaningless quality.
I can usually tell within the first 10 minutes of speaking to a business owner whether my firm is really going to gel with their needs. I find we’ve become quick to turn down projects that we don’t think we’re the best match for, frequently referring those businesses to colleagues who may have special interests or talents that I believe will form a more perfect union between business owner vision and web services company vision.
What is especially interesting to me is that, sometimes, we will decide to take a client on because of an initial sense of our being a strong match for their business, and then, as the relationship grows over time, we come to discern more and more qualities about the business that make us admire what they are doing.
A Valued Client
Such has been the case with our client, Emerson Creek Pottery. We’ve been working with them for about 5 years now. While I initially took a shine to bringing them on board as a client because I thought their pottery was beautiful and liked the fact that it was made in the USA, over the years, I have discovered further gem-like qualities about this company that have made both our relationship with them and our appreciation for what they do unfold and blossom like the petals of a flower. The better we got to know the company, the more we discovered that our own interests and values align with theirs.
This has created a working relationship that is trusting, easy and limitless in creative possibilities. A real dream come true!
Three of the things about this Virgnia-based pottery house that have come to impress me most are:
1. They are one of America’s last commercial pottery companies. Chances are, if you are shopping for new dishes at one of the big box stores or even at specialty shops, they will come primarily from China. There is little or no oversight to protect you from these products being contaminated with lead, and if you’re choosing plastic, science has known for decades that combining plastic with hot food is seriously bad for your health.
America’s Native Peoples used clay to make stunning and useful pottery for many thousands of years. When Colonial immigrants arrived on these shores, they quickly realized they would have to set up potteries if they were to avoid the time and taxation involved in getting housewares shipped over from Europe. A number of great pottery houses emerged out of this need, but as America moved into the age of convenience and global trade, American-made wares were quickly replaced by cheap imports – often with zero regard for safety.
I really love the fact that Emerson Creek Pottery has kept the Colonial tradition alive of creating safe ceramics on American soil. There are very few commercial companies doing this in the 21st century.
2. Emerson Creek Pottery qualifies as a green business in such a meaningful way. Their pottery is made by human hands. When humans do the work, instead of machines, pollution is greatly reduced. And, Americans are being employed with dignity by this activity. When you purchase those box store dishes, you have no way of knowing how the workers who ran the machines are being treated – whether fairly or as sweat shop drudges. I really appreciate the domestic, human-based nature of my client’s business and they have taken a number of steps beyond this to be green.
3. Finally, I find it very exciting to work with a business that regularly creates new products that have the potential to make life a little simpler or saner for people. I love getting to create new pages and new copy for a company that has so much to offer anybody who is looking for safe household items.
On that note, I am feeling really proud today of the potters’ latest offering – sets of safe baby dishes. Like all of their pottery, these are lead-free and are going to be a boon to anyone attempting to raise a plastic-free baby or child. They are such basic, functional pieces…really sane choices for a natural baby. And, they are very charmingly handpainted.
Emerson Creek Pottery owner, Jim Leavitt, sent his children to Montessori schools – an educational system that frowns on giving kids phony substitute objects when they tend to be so much happier with the real thing. This new line of pottery has given me a new reason to be glad I chose to work with this client years ago. I respect any company that thinks children deserve real goods and especially respect the fact that these baby dishes are going to help parents protect their kids from toxic plastics and lead poisoning. Who wouldn’t cheer for that?
To be succinct – this is a company I can really groove with.
What Kind Of Groove Are We In?
Things really hum around the office of Solas Web Design when we are working on a project we have a great feeling for. Picture us in a sunlit space or a moonlit room at the computers, surrounded by our ever-expanding organic farm, nodding our heads in time to the beat of your company’s heart.
If you are doing something green, something organic, something domestic, something local, something family-friendly, something humanitarian, spiritual, handcrafted, creative, mom-business, dad-business, big or small family business…anything that’s really going to benefit the people that we can help you reach, you can expect an exceptional level of comprehension and work from us. Give us the opportunity to get into the groove of your business, and we’ll become a part of your company that you’ll be saying you couldn’t do without. We’d like to hear from you.
When I visit a blog for the first time, if it looks even remotely interesting to me, I subscribe to its RSS feed with the plan of reading articles the blog publishes for awhile to see if I like what the blogger is doing. Maybe other blog readers set the bar higher initially, and don’t subscribe until they’ve had multiple positive experiences with a blog before adding it to their feedreader. I’m not sure, but if the overall topic of a blog is important to me (local search, copywriting, SEO, usability, humanitarian issues) I’m quite willing to give the blogger the benefit of the doubt and a chance to engage me as a loyal reader.
Then, every few months, I go through my Bloglines account and delete those feeds that lead me to blogs that have failed to engage me for a protracted period of time. I’ve started to see some patterns in why I hit delete and this is my list of most common reasons why I typically unsubscribe to blogs.
This is something I have witnessed both on new blogs and on very popular ones as well. A blogger writes a great post that evokes a response from readers who then comment. And then the comments are totally neglected by the blogger. He doesn’t bother to respond. I know, on blogs that receive vast numbers of comments, it’s not realistic to expect the blogger to respond to each and every one of his reader’s comments, but hey, if you write a post that get 3, 5, 10 comments and you just ignore them all, what is the point of you having people comment at all?
I have left remarks, asked questions, praised and condemned and received zero response from authors. If this happens once or twice, I don’t really care, but if this is the blogger’s habitual attitude toward the readers who have taken the time to attempt to converse, then there is no point, really, in attempting to participate. I feel that the blogger doesn’t really care about what he is doing, and I am left with an apathetic feeling about his writing. I hit delete.
It’s my feeling that if you enable comments on your posts, it’s only civil to respond when people comment. If you are just too busy to acknowledge your readers, then maybe you shouldn’t be blogging.
Some people live in a world of big shots and…for lack of a better term…little shots. They would be too shy, too overawed, too nervous to write directly to a ‘big shot’ blogger even if a post has really gotten their attention in a special way. Sometimes, someone writes something that is so great, I want to reach out to them personally and commend them, ask questions, introduce myself, get to know them a bit better and, essentially, give a special recognition to the fact that something they have written has really struck me as exceptionally good or important.
On several occasions, I have received no reply from the blogger after taking the time to find their address, write to them, introduce myself, etc. When this has happened, I feel a bit puzzled and wonder if maybe their email account blocked my address as unknown, wonder if they went on vacation, are really, really busy, are sick, are lying wounded in a ditch somewhere. You get the idea…I make excuses for them because, to be honest, I feel some kind of instinctual embarrassment when I make a friendly overture to someone who then does not respond at all.
So, if I love this person’s writing, perhaps I continue to loyally read their work. Their writing comes off as so genuine, so informative, so worthy of my time. A few months or a year goes by, and they write something else that excites me so much, I send them another email, filled with my interest in them and their work. By this point, I may have forgotten that I tried to speak to them once before to no avail. But when, again, I receive no reply to my kind epistle, I tend to remember. I say, “Oh, this is the guy/gal who didn’t respond to me that other time. They must be too much of a big shot to be courteous or interested in a non-big-shot like me.”
After a couple of experiences like this with the same blogger, I find I can no longer read their work without associating that negative personal feeling with it. I actually feel a bit humiliated for awhile when I think of it, and then I write them off as probably not worth worrying about. And, I delete their feed from my feedreader.
It’s weird when this happens with people who seem to live near the center of the industry spotlight. You come across their work everywhere you go. I’ve even had well-known bloggers who have ignored me later email me to sell me their products or get me to vote for something they’ve written in an SM platform. I feel embarrassed, at that point, for them. They have no idea, I suppose, how phony they appear to me doing this. As I sit there reading their ‘friendly’ appeal for my business or vote, I have to realize that, yes, indeed, they’ve got my email address in their database because I wrote to them. Those emails they never troubled themselves to respond to. Ugh. So uncomfortable.
Some people have pet peeves with blogs that are updated too infrequently. This doesn’t actually bother me that much. Several of my favorite bloggers only post once or twice a month, but I still read everything they write (you know who you are!). Quality counts more than quantity with me. Other people don’t like blogs that disagree with their own beliefs or business views. Personally, I benefit from encountering a wide variety of people and opinions. Sometimes, after giving a blog a trial run, I find the content simply doesn’t interest me enough and I notice that my feedreader has 100 unread posts in it from that source. Time to move on with no hard feelings.
Hard feelings, for me, come when bloggers ignore what is, ostensibly, the goal of the blogging format: to write interactively. Newspapers have lately attempted to mimic the blogging format by enabling comments on news pieces. But I have never yet seen a single journalist return to a piece he has written and respond to those comments. Maybe they do in papers I don’t read, or maybe they think the comments are there so that community can build itself without oversight, moderation or participation from the author of the pieces the public is reacting to. It’s rather fuzzy what the point of it is, but real blogging clearly has the point of interactivity between author and readers and to see that ignored in the face of comments being enabled really does bug me. To see great questions go unanswered, kind remarks go unacknowledged, opposing views go unobserved strikes me as a tremendous waste of opportunity.
And on the personal side, if a blogger’s writing inspires the people who read it, I just don’t think it cuts it anymore to hide behind an aura of being too big of a superstar to respond to readers who reach out to say, “hello, I admire your work. I have some questions.”
I’ve had real famous people (well-known authors, CEOs, scientists, etc.) respond with genuine, personable interest to my attempts to converse with them. Dedicated people seem to share a quality of being always interested in talking about their subject with others who share their interests or concerns. The acquaintances and friendships I’ve formed with real famous people have thrown an unappealing light on bloggers who have attained the heights of a few hundred or thousand subscribers and have subsequently lost their manners.
You just never know how those things are going to play out. The stranger who writes you a note about your blog and tells you he’s working on becoming a full-time SEO could turn out to be one of the most gifted new people in your industry. Or even just the nicest. If you neglect even the most basic of good manners in returning his greeting or wishing him good luck, who knows what you may lose? Maybe future work. Maybe your reputation as a good guy. Maybe a degree of your own self-respect.
All of us are busy. I have tasks to fill every hour of my day. I hope I’ve never been too busy, though, to meet good will with good will. As a blogger, I think it’s my responsibility to foster a pleasant atmosphere in which all can speak, all can learn, all can participate. Equality is good for business and our relationships with everyone. Don’t you agree?
Does it look like this in your town? Over a week ago, the phone books were delivered to my neighborhood, and the above is a photo I took of a set of 10 mailboxes. As you can see, 8 of the mailbox owners have left their phone books laying rather forlornly on the ground, subject to all weather. That’s an 80% rate of neglect. I have noticed this all over my region of the world, and have been left asking myself, “are people just lazy; is it like this every year; or have phone books really gone the way of dinosaurs?”
I feel sad when I look at the massive waste of paper and plastic. I feel sorry when I think of the fact that the whole Yellow Pages section of those phone books is a record of the dreams of local business owners who are hoping my neighbors will flip the pages and do business. I feel regret when I think of all of the people who work for the big phone book companies and who, from what I understand, are having less and less luck getting advertising contracts with local businesses.
But the thing is, when I needed to get my car smogged last week, I Googled an auto repair shop.
When I wanted to buy a camera last year, I talked to family members, did competitive research online and then used the web to find a local source for the camera I decided to purchase.
When I moved house and needed to find about 100 different things for the move and the new place, I turned to my computer to get a picture of what my new town could offer me.
When my family members want to eat out, they read reviews at Yelp. When they need driving directions, they go to MapQuest. When they are looking for a bargain, they go to Craigslist or eBay. The last time I can remember seeing someone I know use a phone book, it was to hike up a baby so he could have a seat at the dinner table.
The point is, our fingers seem to have forgotten how to do the walking unless it’s over a keyboard. For better or for worse, the weeds growing ’round the old phone book aptly illustrate what I see as the present attitude toward a medium that has come to be seen as old technology. The way of the dinosaurs, right?
But, let’s not forget that the dinosaurs are still with us, in a way, as the birds we see flying all around us. Yellow Pages have gone online in an effort to adapt to the changing times, and I’m wishing them luck in their evolution. I would especially love to see one of the yellow-page-type entities make a serious, usable stab at getting medical provider data right, as this is one area in which Google has utterly dropped the ball.
Phone the doctors, one by one, and get their contact information straight, and they’ll be doing something Google has no plans to do. And, it would be in the spirit of accuracy that the phone book has been able to count as its strength against the web’s weakness. But this will have to be done on the web to avoid the knee-high-weed scenario shown above. Or, maybe that’s just my corner of the world. Maybe where you live, everyone snapped up their phone books as soon as they hit the dust? Take a look around the next time you’re out and about and let me know.
As for my neighbors, I guess it’s time to recycle your phone books.