Several newspaper reports in the UK have recently revealed AirBnB to be blocking negative, “unfavourable” customer reviews, posted by guests who chose to leave a property early as a result of an unsatisfactory stay.
The Times, in particular, has stated the homestay website has been “refusing to allow guests to post warnings about holiday listings if they cut short their stay, treating it as though the trip had been cancelled before it started”.
This approach means many customers may have been misled by Airbnb, as disgruntled homestayers have been unable to voice their opinion on a property if they had to leave it early.
Airbnb is by no means the first business to create controversy on the topic of negative reviews. Back in 2014, a hotel in Blackpool caused a stir by introducing a £100 fine into their terms and conditions for anyone posting a negative review, which it duly applied to a couple’s stay after they wrote a TripAdvisor review that described the hotel as a “rotten stinking hovel”.
Whilst this incident caused a much greater media storm at the time than Airbnb’s has, the homestay website’s is arguably more controversial, given the power the business wields.
"Manipulating reviews violates the most basic ethical practices a company can hold, as they can falsely affect consumers’ purchase decisions and damage the company’s reputation," warns Prelini Udayan-Chiechi, VP of marketing EMEA at Bazaarvoice. "No one likes to receive negative feedback, yet when it comes to building and nurturing your customer relationships and protecting your brand reputation, transparency is key. Any effort to conceal lower-rated reviews will jeopardise relationships with customers, as they have a fundamental right to trust the content they encounter."
In the wake of the story, a spokesperson for Airbnb has promised that “all hosts and guests can review their experiences on Airbnb and we apologise that our policy was not applied correctly in these isolated incidents”, and that, “we firmly believe in transparency - our review system relies on it - and will contact the guests affected to apologise and help make things right”.
Causing reputational damage by manipulating reviews is certainly irresponsible. But some also suggest that failing to understand the value that negative reviews can provide is simply unforgivable.
“From a business’ perspective, hiding negative reviews is a missed opportunity,” says Udayan-Chiechi.
“We have seen from research that customers are more willing to put their trust in brands and businesses that aren’t afraid to be transparent. By embracing negative feedback, businesses are able to gather insight into issues they may not have previously been aware of, and by taking both good and bad customer feedback on board, companies can make improvements to enhance their products and services.”
Indeed, Moz data states online reviews now have a direct impact on 67.7% of consumer purchasing decisions, highlighting just how important they now are to brands keen to understand their customers more granularly.
From a business’ perspective, hiding negative reviews is a missed opportunity
Yet little data exists about whether negative reviews are erosive enough to warrant being censored by brands; and in some cases, the opposite can be true. Indeed, according to Yelp.com, “On average, a restaurant with more than 20 reviews and a 4 star rating on Yelp has three times more page view traffic than a restaurant with more than 20 reviews and a 5 star rating”.
Sometimes negativity can actually frame a company in a more positive light, not to mention the value of being told by a customer when something related to your service or product could be improved.
“A bad review may be all the more interesting to your customers, particularly when it is directly addressed and responded to by the company at hand,” says Tom Weeks, UK sales director for Ve.
“Negative comments do not necessarily have a negative impact on sales, but help to give a fuller picture of a product and attract attention to the good ones. Bad reviews can help you think about your strategy from the consumer’s point of view and enhance your overall product and service offering accordingly. A negative comment need not be a damning of the service; rather, you should view it as a ‘sense check’ of what isn’t working and where there is room for improvement.”
Customer service author and speaker, Colin Shaw advises against Airbnb-esque blocking, or retaliation in response to a bad review. Instead, he suggests taking the following steps to turn the negative into a positive:
1. Respond quickly and sufficiently. “This suggestion is Customer Service 101. However, it still holds true and I still see so many companies not doing this. Not only is it just good business practice, but it also closes the door of opportunity for your competition to find its way into their good graces. Recently, a friend of mine shared an experience with the LA Times. He was a 30-year reader of the paper, albeit the digital version over the past ten years. They cut off his access to the content, saying he needed to pay more money. He complained via email, and they sent him a form letter in response (quickly but not sufficiently). Now he reads Apple News.”
2. Position the reviews to facilitate balance and positive influence on readers. “The British Psychological Society Research Digest published a study in 2012 that found when respondents read positive reviews of an LA Hotel before negative ones, they felt more favourable to the hotel. This effect remained constant even when the reviews were positioned to indicate a deterioration over a year. The main finding here is that we tend to remain impressed when we read early positive reviews. So if you can keep the positive reviews flowing first, it will mitigate the impact of the bad reviews.”
3. Take a look at your experience with and outside-in perspective. “Many companies don’t understand what their experience is like from a customer’s perspective. When this is the case, and you have an abundance of negative feedback coming out of your experience, it’s time to find out what’s happening there.”