Sara's Column: Chance for rough seas during the Internet era

I’m a review junkie.
Aug 8, 2014
Sara McManamy-Johnson

I’m a review junkie.

I’ve been known to stand in a Walmart shopping aisle, phone in hand, quickly scanning online customer product reviews as I’m picking out merchandise from the shelf. 

I don’t take individual reviews as gospel – I realize that there will always be isolated issues – but I do look for trends in multiple reviews. If 10 people all say they’ve had problems with battery life on a certain cellphone, I take that as a pretty good indicator there might be a problem with that particular model.

Nowadays, you can find customer reviews for just about everything online. And a lot of consumers have become wise to them, often turning to them when deciding anything from where to go for dinner to what car to buy.

Consumers aren’t the only ones to become wise to them, though. A longstanding business statistic says that one unhappy customer will tell eight to 10 about their experience. The seas are a little rougher now for businesses, though, as that one unhappy customer can now instead tell – well, everybody, thanks to the Internet.

It only makes sense that businesses will try to protect their interests, and many are working proactively to use the Internet and social media to build positive impressions of their services. Many businesses now have teams of customer service representatives monitoring various social media channels to quickly reach out to customers who voice their complaints online. 

I’m all for strategies like that (It’s certainly preferable to waiting on hold to speak with a call center rep.)

Some businesses, though, have found strategies I would just call “ethically questionable.” Paying people to pose as customers and write glowing (and fabricated) reviews is just one popular strategy.

I tend to take them as part and parcel to the whole Internet thing, which has always had its “shadier” elements. Not much surprises me anymore.

But one business’s strategy managed to surprise me. 

Earlier this week, the Internet blew up with the story of a bed and breakfast in New York that was apparently fining a wedding party $500 for each negative review online left by any of the party’s guests.

According to an article Tuesday on Slate.com, a former guest, Rabih Zahnan, left a negative review about his stay at the Union Street Guest House on Yelp. Two months after posting his review, Zahnan received an email threatening to charge the wedding party – which had previously provided a deposit – $500.

Zahnan told Slate he ultimately received four emails from the hotel, each threatening to charge the wedding party. He said he never responded to the emails, and the wedding party said they were never charged.

As I read more about the incident, I learned the tactic is not entirely unheard of. A dentist in Manhattan required patients to sign a privacy agreement prior to service that also ceded the dentist copyrights for any reviews the patient posts.

There have even been cases of businesses suing customers for posting negative reviews online. And some have won damages.

I can’t predict where it’s going to go from here. I can only hope the legal system will provide a little direction as to what kind of review-related policies businesses can implement.

But I also believe consumers need to be especially aware now of libel laws. After all, truth is the ultimate defense.

Sara McManamy-Johnson is the digital content director for The Lebanon Democrat and Wilson County News. Email her at sjohnson@lebanondemocrat.com or follow her on Twitter @wilsoncoreports. 

 

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