How reliable are online reviews?

online reviews

I had an interesting experience with online reviews recently.

As someone who regularly and automatically validates pretty much every purchase I make against online reviews, I realise now that I had stopped questioning the authenticity of said reviews and started taking them at face value.

A similar thing happened recently when I decided to engage the support of a national cleaning business, Time for You.

The irony of this company name will soon become apparent.

I’d had a mixed experience with cleaners in the past so when I saw that Time for You had a rating of 4.2 on Trustpilot I was pleasantly surprised. Perhaps agency cleaning was the way to go, and a safer option than the smaller, local cleaning businesses that I’d had mixed experiences with in the past.

First impressions were good. I received a call soon after expressing interest and had booked a home visit with the Stevenage agent to talk through my requirements in person.

Alarm bells dimly chimed when I realised that the primary purpose of the agent’s visit was to get the contract signed and three months of agency fees paid upfront – the latter I’d been unaware of and unprepared for.

But blinded by the great online reviews that circled in my mind and promises that I’d have a cleaner within the week who had been personally vetted and visited at their own home, I grasped the pen of doom and signed on the dotted line, handing over my credit card whilst I did so.

Fast forward a few months and I found myself in the position of the frustrated reviewer.

Not usually one to leave reviews despite my hunger for them pre-purchase, I decided to give back to the process in an attempt to balance out the strangely positive online feedback and help others avoid making a similar mistake.

Here’s the review I left:

Put simply, they have absolutely no Time for You or for the vetting / sourcing process, as they state in their metadata below:

“Time For You is Britain’s largest and favourite domestic cleaning company. We vet all our cleaners in their own homes, our vetting procedure is rigorous and thorough and our motto is that we only take on cleaners we would be happy in our own homes. We are about matching the right cleaner with the right client.”

Why all the positive online reviews?

Something interesting happened after I left my review.

Firstly, I was contacted by Head Office asking for more information about my experience. I replied with the following:

Less than 24 hours after sending this email, I was contacted by the elusive Stevenage agent who had so readily taken my deposit and so easily ignored my pleas for a response.

Here’s the tail end of her message to me:

Might this be a form of blackmail, perhaps?

“I’m holding your agency fee hostage despite previously agreeing to return it, until you remove your negative review!”

I was shocked to be put in such a position.

As a Digital Marketer with over 12 years experience in gathering, managing and responding to online reviews, I hadn’t ever been on the receiving end of a ‘review deal’; that is, you do this for me and I’ll do this for you.

All the review management I’d ever done had been legit. Of course, people ask happy clients for reviews which tends to result in more positive than negative, but the rules of negative review management are that you remain open to resolving the unhappy customers issue and respond to the review, on the review.

Nowhere in the online marketing manual does it state that companies should ask unhappy customers to remove their review or worse, blackmail them with the return of money to do so.

A new wave of review distortion seems to have come crashing down on my doorstep.

I was left with a choice; be blackmailed and remove my comments in the hope of receiving a refund or effectively ‘pay’ £70 to leave an honest albeit negative review that may help others avoid the same fate.

How many others have had to make the same choice?

If I’d read my own review prior to engaging the support of this cleaning agency, perhaps I wouldn’t be in this position now.

Further still, how are these companies allowed to manipulate the reviews that are left on third party sites? Must we question the validity of all reviews, even on review sites?

Do sites like Trust Pilot ask people who try to delete negative reviews why they are doing so? I can’t imagine many people delete their reviews unless they’ve been asked to do so by the company they are reviewing.

The resolution of an issue does not erase everything that has happened up until that point.

I’d like to have seen a response to my review clarifying that my issue was being dealt with and I would have happily replied to my own review to thank the company for their help in resolving it.

The fact of the matter is, we rarely see the full story.

Don’t potential customers deserve to see the flaws? Isn’t the way in which people and businesses deal with challenges a true reflection of how trustworthy they really are?

Perhaps more needs to be done to educate companies in how to handle negative reviews and perhaps more could be done by ‘independent’ review sites to reduce the likelihood of review manipulation behind the scenes.

I haven’t covered the other side of review management which includes attempts by companies to bolster their own review scores whilst sullying the competition. Fake reviews are rife and that’s not a new thing.

I do, however, think that companies that try to manipulate genuine reviews and blackmail customers to remove them should be held accountable.

For more on fake reviews, take a look at this article by Forbes – why you should not trust online reviews.

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