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Friday, 11 November 2011

Bad reviews travel fast: Tripadvisor and online reputation management

By Eileen Lin, Consultant, ReputationInc

Here is the situation: You have just over an hour before the evening performance, and stumble upon what looks like a decent pre-theatre menu.  After all, anywhere with fast service and reasonable food will suffice.

The punter at the door promised you snacks within 5 minutes and drinks within 10 minutes. You enter full of hope, only to find that after 20 minutes, you have not been served at all, despite having asked the waitress twice. Then, when your food is finally ready  45 minutes later, it never reaches you, because it sat on a service stall for 10 minutes in the middle of the room, where all the guests and staff had to walk past.  At the end of the meal, you find a 12.5% ‘voluntary’ service charge added to your bill. What do you do?

Do you…
1) Refuse to pay for service
2) Ask to speak to the manager
3) Pay the full bill and vow to never come back again, or
4) Pay the full bill, nod, smile, thank the staff for their hospitality, only to scurry home to write a long and whining online review criticising the poor service?

Let’s face it.  Britons are no good at complaints or confrontations. Most of us faced with this situation would probably prefer to avoid the embarrassment of making a scene and quietly ‘vote with our feet’ instead. However, with social media, things have changed. Popular review websites such as Tripadvisor.com have enabled consumers to get their own back on restaurants and hotels that disappoint.

The extent of such influence was well-documented by a recent documentary by Channel 4, entitled ‘ The Attack of the Tripadvisors’, where a group of B&B owners, whose life and business fortune had been made hell by the review website, confronted their critics. For the hosts, the hardest things to come to terms with was the fact that customers always seemed happy when leaving the premises but as soon as they reach their nearest computer, the meal has turned sour and the stay uncomfortable.

Why didn’t you tell us so, they cry, rather than simply slating us online? We would have done something about it, they say. To illustrate the emotional damage the site has caused, one B&B owner went as far as to say that she had ‘considered paying for a hacker to destroy the website’ because it had turned her childhood dream into a nightmare.

I cannot honestly say I don’t have sympathy for these struggling independent businesses. However, they are missing a fundamental point: the reviews websites are merely a reflection of the increasingly high standard modern consumers have come to expect from anyone that seeks to take their hard earned money from them. We all laughed when watching Fawty Towers, but who among us would actually be happy to pay to stay there?

Over the years, consumers have become increasingly conscious of their collective power and rights, while social media has enabled individuals to have influence beyond their immediate network.  This rise in citizen journalist has forced businesses to re-examine how they obtain and manage customer feedback.

Rather than blaming the reviews website for mis-management and accusing the critics of being cowards hiding behind computer screens; businesses, large and small, must learn fast. Not only on how to deal with customer complaints online, but also how to turn each crisis into an opportunity, using feedback to inform business strategy and action changes. After all, we know that customer satisfaction and advocacy tends to increase when a complaint is cordially addressed, compared with when there is no complaint at all. Managing customer feedback, and thus business reputation, is no longer a communication tool, but a business imperative.

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