Preserving freedom of reviews

There is a lot of debate on controlling free speech on the internet, specifically when that speech is hateful or controversial, and not surprisingly when it relates to a Presidential election. But free speech is also under assault when it comes to business, specifically bad business. The internet is increasingly where we research, conduct and review business, and when that business isn’t good, our bad reviews can carry significant weight. In the past, if a business wronged you, unless you were willing to file a lawsuit, the most you could do was tell your friends not to go there. The internet, and specifically reviews left on Google, Yelp, the BBB, and other websites, has changed that.

Because reviews have a lot of power, they can do a decent job changing behavior. This summer I hired a contractor to level out a low area of our property and cut up a bunch of trees. He came out, leveled the area, and finished about half of the tree work. Because he had another pressing job, and because I was not rushed on the trees, I said he could come back the next week to finish the job, and I paid him in full. Big mistake. I came back from a short underway five weeks later and the job still wasn’t done.

After trying to get him to respond via email and phone, I left a sharp, 1 star review on Yelp. I got a call the next day, we setup a time to finish the project, and I changed the review to 4 stars once the job was complete. Lesson learned: reviews are a good tool, and never pay in full for uncompleted work.

I just solved another dispute that took 2 months. I made a reservation for military travel, but a week before I had to change due to a change in our mission. I called the hotel to cancel, and was told they would give me a credit, as in, I could come back and visit them in the future. I asked for them to reimburse the government credit card instead, because I didn’t know when I would travel there. The gentleman on the phone said he would try.

Three weeks later, and no reimbursement. Calling them again, they said they would try. No change. I called the government credit card company, who called them asking for a refund. Still nothing. I paid the bill (government cards are linked to your personal credit, so you owe regardless) and filed a dispute with the card company. Still nothing.

Online it is then! First a 1-star review on Google. Then Yelp. Then filing a grievance with the BBB. After they ignored the BBB, the BBB rating plummeted from A+ to C-. Yay for me, but I was still out 100 dollars. Then, last night, an email appeared from the manager, apologizing for the issue and refunding my money. I’ll write him back tonight and update the reviews.

This is how reviews should be: opening a dialog to solve a customer grievance. It forces business to improve customer support, and if they ignore it, it warns others to avoid them at all cost. Amazon understands this, and the review system on Amazon is one of the huge drivers behind its now almost ubiquitous use in America. This free speech is under assault by businesses seeking to squelch reviews, in most cases with lawsuits. As there is an awful lot of trolls and others that leave negative reviews for no good reason, this is understandable.

I would offer a different take. Negative reviews are an opportunity for good customer service. They give business a chance to evaluate themselves against an exterior standard. Any reader of Peter Drucker knows that business must use external standards to evaluate their performance, and a negative review, even if unjustified in the business’s eyes, is that external standard. Rather than trying to squelch it via the justice system (something that will become increasingly harder with current legislation), businesses should relish the opportunity to turn an angry customer into a happy one.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.