Customer reviews: How to build trust, ensure authenticity and reverse negativity

14th Jan 2015

Customer reviews have evolved over the last 10 years to become the backbone of the online retail and trade experience, with stats revealing that close to 80% of people will read reviews before handing over so much as a penny as part of an online transaction.

Other data suggests that online reviews can generate as much as 40% in additional revenue per year, however the reported flipside is that the feedback process also leaves businesses at the mercy of their reviewers.

In an age where the customer is in charge, and where author of the seminal 'CRM at the Speed of Light' and owner of the 56 Group, Paul Greenberg defines all customer engagement as, “the ongoing interactions between company and customer, offered by the company, chosen by the customer”, is there really any alternative but to embrace the practice?

“We’ve become accustomed to voicing our opinion on the web,” says Peter Mühlmann, CEO of review platform Trustpilot. “There’s been an enormous increase in websites where we can share whatever is on our mind and we’re interested in what other people are doing and saying.

“Reviews are engulfing everything – if I want to grab a taxi, there’s now an app surfacing that can tell me about the taxi driver and ranks them according to reviews. When I’m buying books I can read numerous reviews detailing the quality of the material.”

Negative responses

As a result of the growing importance of online reviews in the eyes of the customer, some extreme examples of the system being abused have materialised over recent months and years; perhaps the most famous being the 2013 revelation that Samsung was paying people to criticise its competitor HTC online.

With a number of similar stories involving an array of businesses also surfacing since, discussions around the topics of trust and authenticity have been amplified from both the consumer and the business-side of the online review debate, with more examples of extreme measures being taken on both sides.  

A few years ago, hundreds of hotels and restaurant businesses threatened to take review site TripAdvisor to court over what they viewed as 'unfair' reviews, while in recent times, reports of businesses implementing clauses in their customer contracts prohibiting online reviews.

This was brought to the fore by a report in March that a bride was almost sued over a review of her wedding photographer in which she commented negatively on the value of the service, and by the Blackpool hotel that charged a Cumbrian couple £100 for posting an undesirable Trip Advisor review.

However, the idea of setting criteria for what people can and can’t review, or turning off the taps completely, is one that’s fraught with danger, as the media storm from the Blackpool hotel fallout so vividly exposed.  

Peter Mühlmann sympathises with the pressures businesses are placed under in confronting negativity, but suggests that knee-jerk responses or creating policy to counteract reviews are often the cause of a break in the trust between consumer and business:

I can understand why some companies might take that option, because it’s hard not to take negative reviews personally. If someone is writing something bad about my company, of course, I don’t like that and find it difficult not to take that badly. Also, because we’re not used to people writing negative things about us online, there’s a tendency for us to overreact to these situations; attaching far greater importance to the issue than is required.

“We’re seeing some signs of companies that deliver good replies to negative reviews experiencing far more positive outcomes. People know it’s human to make mistakes. Nobody is perfect. So what’s interesting from a consumer perspective is how we react when confronted with those mistakes. This is where the opportunity for companies lies.

“There are a number of surveys that show consumers prefer to see a company with a few negative reviews because people want to be informed, honestly.  If you take a camera as an example – if you had a review that said “it has a poor battery life but it is a pretty good camera for the price”, that shows that, yes, there are some disadvantages to this product but at least you know what they are in advance. We are generally, as consumers, ok with negative points as long as we feel informed.”  

Ensuring authenticity

As the Samsung example highlights, one of the biggest issues with negative reviews can often be the authenticity of the content that is eventually published, and this can harm not only the business bearing the brunt of the defamation, but also the trust consumers place in the review platform itself.    

And while some businesses have taken the ‘gated community’ approach to ensuring authenticity, Mühlmann is a firm believer that transparency is still a far more valid attitude to take, long-term, and suggests adhering to a three-point criteria in both being involved in and building a platform for customers to critique products and services:

“For companies, there’s no better way to put customer service first than embracing transparency. Companies can really benefit from showing that they have reviews, and at the same time, raising consumer awareness about reviews. There’s an entire review economy building off the back of the understanding that reviews are the quickest, easiest way to gain a high level of transparency.

“I don’t think there’s a silver bullet to the authenticity issue, but I do think there is an array of options for businesses to do some good.

  1. Fundamentally, openness is a platform’s greatest strength. The fact that a platform is open for people to give feedback is absolutely key because it allows consumers to voice their opinion when they’ve had an experience with a business. It’s important that there aren’t gated communities, in that respect.
  2. You need to look at patterns in data. If your bank is blocking your credit card because you were buying something in the UK one second and then in China the next, your bank is going to look at that information and gauge with some accuracy that something is wrong. In the same way, the big review sites are looking at a lot of data points and patterns in data. The more reviews there are the, the higher the likelihood is that they’re drawing an accurate image of a company.
  3. It helps to elevate the online identity of reviewers. Whereas ten years ago the web was more anonymous, in the near future we’ll see that people will further validated people being who they say they are with reviews, i.e. linking reviews to Twitter profiles, or Facebook to prove that you are who you say you are when posting reviews. If you look at AirBnB, this is already being done anonymously, so you can see the number of Facebook friends, Twitter followers a reviewer has without having to see their name.”

Data insights

The idea of using data to paint a more detailed picture of reviews and those that post them is a vital component in improving authenticity, but also helps with combatting negativity. However, while information leads to insight, Mühlmann acknowledges that this can only be obtained from having a higher volume of reviews of your business and its solutions in the first place, which can ultimately only truly be delivered from adhering to a transparent approach to reviews.     

“Trust is everything with reviews,” he adds, “but equally so is building up a quantity of reviews. If you looked at a product and it had just one review, it wouldn’t necessarily matter if you knew it was authentic, you might not trust it. You really need a number of reviews before you feel comfortable with the authenticity angle.

“Every single review is its own story and can provide a lot of beneficial information for a company. Many businesses wrongfully assume that if people are dissatisfied, they’ll tell the company, but that’s just not true. If you take a restaurant, how often do you make a complaint in person when the service isn’t up to scratch? Very rarely. So it’s a lot easier to do that through online reviews.

“Once you start adding layers of data onto this you can start to compare different product lines, different business units, customer-facing employees, and really use this to dive into the data and finding specific pain-points where people are having issues with your company. Reviews will tell you pretty quickly where you’re being successful and where you’re not. Done correctly, it’s an unfiltered view of your business.”

Sentiment analysis

In larger-scale businesses, successful insights from review data is not just helping drive business performance, it’s starting to help marketers in their attempts to better predict further problems with their operations before they arise and analyse sentiment to pre-empt what customers want. It’s something Mühlmann expects to become more and more prevalent in the future, as the review landscape continues to expand.    

“We’re definitely going to see more and more on sentiment analysis to drive customer experience. A merge between marketing and support for customer satisfaction is the most obvious next step.

“Whereas marketing was once about telling people about a product, or a brand, now it’s more about leaning on what people are suggesting and experiencing in order to offer them something they want.

“The right approach moving forwards is to embrace the voice of potential and current customers as opposed to trying to control them. It benefits both sides – nobody goes to work wanting to manipulate customers. Sentiment analysis is certainly something the flips that whole process on its head and ties marketing into the review process more effectively.” 

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