Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Online Store Makes Customers Sign Agreement About Reviews

Today Techdirt.com has a piece about an online appliance store requiring customers to sign an agreement concerning their possible reviews of their products and services. The site apparently threatens libel suits if the company does not like a review left by a customer. There's a whole lot wrong with this, from legality to the shear stupidity of it all, but the site owner has the right idea, or at least a legitimate gripe about online reviews. There are a whole array of online review sites, methods and companies and each payment processor and online shopping mall has their own set of reviews - none of which are perfect, and all rely on customers' experiences.

The most glaring example of review stupidity is the way eBay ran their feedback system, which is only eclipsed by the way they now run their feedback system. Offering a positive, negative and neutral rating would have been fine, but assigning a negative rating to the equation for feedback rating while requiring sellers to maintain 97%+ leads buyers to be less than truthful. And sellers could previously rate the buyer, but no longer. Now the seller is at the mercy of anyone who clicks the Buy It Now button, whether they pay for the product or not.

Sites using Google Checkout as a processor are often greeted with poor reviews, some of which are directed at the Checkout process itself rather than the actual retailer. Also, like other feedback/rating systems, Google sends out a questionnaire via email to the customer. In the case of services offered online, this questionnaire is sent out much to early for some services to be completed, thus resulting in poor reviews...ie. "I haven't received what I paid for yet!"

The major issue with reviews is that the intelligent customer who is reading them, must parse together an opinion of a company based on other intelligent customers as well as the brain dead ones that lack any sign of common sense. Usually the bad ones are easy to pick out, they are obviously vile, or irrelevant to the products/services offered, or place blame on the etailer for obvious customer ignorance. But a customer who just quickly checks review stars or percentages may be influenced by low stars or ratings without actually reading the reviews. If the site in question sells and delivers a Maytag washer that breaks, is it really the fault of the company? No. The rating should not be based on the product, but rather the sales transaction, experience, and how the etailer deals with issues that might arise (like a washer that breaks).

Of the numerous sites that I manage, one of them (only one) offers a 100% satisfaction guarantee that says we will replace an item for virtually any reason (house burnt down, product inside, covered) and if a replacement is not available, and cannot be found, we will refund the customer.  Still, this site gets more poor reviews than any of our other sites. Somebody buys a CD and for reasons unknown it doesn't play a movie when they put it in their Blue Ray player....imagine that! So we get a bad review. Others will order a product that doesn't work, instead of calling or emailing (which would have resulted in a replacement being sent out at no cost without having to return the defective item) they just do nothing, lose their money, and post a poor review.

The problem got so big with this particular site that we amended our guarantee with a line that says that the guarantee is void if customer leaves a poor review. Is it enforceable? Not with our current software, but a few years down the road with millions of dollars worth of product sold, we can not afford and have no desire to honor a guarantee that is so ironclad that a poor review should never occur. I would have no problem replacing something even if the customer is at fault for ordering the wrong product or broke the product, even with a mediocre review (say 3 of 5 stars), but when they leave a 1 star and a comment such as "This company is awful, product broke, they rape kittens," I feel that they really don't deserve the guarantee.

And yes, we do get people occasionally who leave a scathing review for a product that is 100% replaceable at no expense to the customer, and then contact us wanting to take advantage of the guarantee. But there is no method on most review sites for the customer to go back and change or add to their review. Customer may be mentally handicapped, order wrong product, leave bad review, we accommodate them, they get right product, are happy, but still that review will live on forever.

Would I like to have a written agreement that all customers must read and sign prior to purchases? Sure, if it would work, but it won't. Customers would read it about as closely as they read the user agreement for a Google product. (One of our former employees is locked into a year long contract at $20 per month because she didn't read a user agreement). I understand the appliance store owner's frustration, but for lack of being able to come up with a universal rating and review system that is able to be edited to show how poor reviews where responded to by companies, you can't just threaten to sue people. Even if they are stupid

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