Assessing Contractor Reviews
Reviews can guide purchase decisions, especially when no one in your circle can offer a recommendation. Since only a fraction of consumers post online reviews, it’s important to remember that those opinions are far from representative of the whole. The endless opportunities to voice opinions online create a cacophony of conflicting opinions that can be more confusing than helpful. Here are some considerations to discern the valid from invalid.
Businesses feature reviews to promote products or services. Amazon is among many to include both the positive and negative. Those that filter negative comments do so for the same reason hospitals don’t advertise the fact that every day, 1 in 25 patients will suffer from at least one healthcare-associated infection. Broadcasting the possibility of a negative outcome may elevate concern disproportionate to need. Life-saving treatment should not be avoided for fear of secondary risks. Similarly, retailers know that products may contain a manufacturing defect or be lost or damaged during shipping. Yet publicizing the chance of disappointment is not nearly as helpful to consumers as providing remedies for those situations.
Overwhelmingly consumers award the highest ratings to premium brands, suggesting marketing campaigns have greater impact than product testing. Consumer Reports, the non-profit publisher of product tests and reviews has declined in authority thanks to consumer reviews posted directly on seller sites. This is disturbing given Consumer Report’s esteemed reputation for factual reporting versus the unverified and questionable sources of reviews allegedly posted by consumers.
Sites dedicated to the promotion of negativity have grown in number, though not in popularity. Pragmatists shun the ilk of haters and rage-quitters populating negative forums for being uninformative. Yelp is criticized for filters that can exclude positive reviews, resulting in a negatively skewed purview. PissedConsumer mimics RipOffReport, the site notorious for profiting from incendiary comments and strictly prohibiting consumers from posting positive reviews. Plagued by lawsuits over defamation and disclosure, RipOff launched a Corporate Advocacy Program. As the name makes clear, the program is not pro-consumer. It offers businesses the opportunity to become verified for an initial fee of thousands plus a monthly fee for the lifespan of the company. The program preys on business owners who have had the misfortune of having their brand linked to ROR, even once. Little scrutiny is required to determine whether ROR reviews are legitimate or manufactured to market its highly lucrative exploit and extort scheme.
Negative sites encourage rage-reviewers to vent or seek revenge. They are not in the business of consumer education, advocacy, or protection. Like the film industry, they know that drama sells. Even those that permit positive reviews, as for-profit enterprises there is an inherent bias toward advertisers. The merger of Angie’s List and HomeAdvisor has created an advertising behemoth for home improvement contractors. Partiality is unmistakable when companies are permitted to incentivize consumers with discounts or giveaways to receive 5 star ratings. Spending marketing dollars on an industry-specific site to receive a favorable rating and page position effectively converts consumer reviews to paid advertising.
Search “pay for reviews” and discover a plethora of businesses that post fake reviews for a fee. By paying a team of individuals or using bots it is easy to populate numerous sites with fictitious or unidentified reviews, and to do so repetitively. Providing ghost reviews can successfully advance a product, service, individual, or political agenda. As the IT community continues its quest to advance data algorithms that learn, adapt, and predict, the ability to discern an authentic opinion remains a human function.
Google’s sophisticated algorithms cannot determine whether a comment is prompted by a disgruntled employee, contractor, competitor, or personal grievance unrelated to the product or service. Nor can it track the number of times the same reviewer posted under an alternate identity. Sites offering opportunities to post reviews usually have policies against fictitious identity and falsified statements but given the volume of posts these restrictions are rarely enforced.
Just as reviewers comprise a mix of personalities and expectations, a company is a group of people with feelings about their work and reputations—collectively and individually. Consumers and businesses must not forget that some members do not represent the whole. It would be unreasonable to treat all customers like the one who could never be satisfied, or to assume that all carpenters track wood glue across the carpet.
Few genuinely aggrieved customers give venting priority. The majority seek resolution in the form of restitution or change assuring future improvement. Savvy consumers and businesses alike understand that working together achieves greater results faster than a flurry of online posts or a team of lawyers.
In the end, each of us receives both positive and negative reviews. It depends on who you ask and when. As one kindergartener explained, “She was my friend, but not today, and on Saturday she’s coming to my birthday!” Opinions and relationships really do ebb and flow. The best we can do is learn from constructive criticism and let the remainder roll off our backs like water from ducks.
When evaluating the opinions of others, keep in mind the following:
• Relevance – How closely does the review align with your needs? The hair stylist with negative ratings for color or perm treatments may provide an outstanding haircut at a great price.
• Time – Products and services change, giving recent reviews the greatest value.
• Quality – Is the review truly intended to help others? It’s hard to be practical when upset. Look for rational comments that set forth facts and suggest corrective measures.
• Quantity – A boutique will never match the number of reviews received by a retail chain. Keep comparisons proportional, as in Home Depot and Lowe’s.
• Authenticity – Disregard sites that permit anonymous reviews. These are marketing platforms. A comment from “John D.” lacks any credibility. When in doubt, ask the business if you can speak with that customer. Search for other reviews posted by a user. Common discrepancies include multiple reviews on different sites with inconsistent details. Did that person really buy 4 camcorders this year, or is it a bot? Suspicious, too, are reviewers who rave about one business and trash competitors. Manipulated reviews and ratings are difficult to detect, even for sophisticated web crawlers. Before reading reviews, determine which sites deserve your confidence by searching “complaints about [site name]”.
• Video Testimonials – This is an excellent opportunity to see and hear the reviewer and is most reliable when the consumer’s name is included. While veracity can be difficult to discern in writing, it is much easier when gauging the speaker’s tone and body language. Even the most camera-shy person conveys a naturalness that few Oscar-winners can replicate.
Resolution and Satisfaction
After researching the purchase option for you, should the result be less than satisfactory, always contact the business directly and promptly. Waiting weeks to address an incongruity dilutes its importance. A refund policy, satisfaction guarantee, or established procedure like Ebay’s successful dispute resolution process offer consumer protection. Present your concern respectfully so that it can be taken seriously. Gruffly informing a waiter that the soup arrived cold is immature and may get you hot soup with an added ingredient.
Hostility is ineffective with wait staff, and even small companies have the power to crush consumer threats. If you believe you can leverage a deal thinking Tim’s Tree Trimming is competing with Larry’s Landscaping, they are likely friendly competitors who service each other’s customers during peak season. Calling Larry a loser online could get you shut out of local help from his cousin Pete’s Plumbing. Frustration occurs on both sides. When businesses respond to reviews, few disclose how uncooperative a customer is (“Three times they scheduled us to fix the chimney but were never home.”), or when reparation has been made.
Anyone who has said the wrong thing to a loved one learned that hurtful words cause lasting damage. Airing dirty laundry in public makes reconciliation much harder. For this reason, review sites are the worst venue for dispute resolution. To get what you really need, set aside emotion and take the conciliatory approach. Be prepared with helpful information such as original packaging, dates of calls with name of representative spoken to, photos, and a few suggestions to move both sides toward a fair solution. You’ll be pleased by how effective this is. And how much better you’ll feel. As Chicago Bears founder George Halas said, “Nobody who ever gave his best regretted it.”