Responding to Customer Criticisms On Line

An article in Slate today discusses a recent lawsuit against the website tripadvisor.com for not removing a customer comment that alleged a restaurant was patronized by prostitutes. The author argues, probably correctly, that most consumers will ignore a single outlier comment and look for patterns, and that businesses should be more concerned with trends, such as a half-dozen complaints about slow service, than a single extreme allegation. The author also suggests that businesses should take advantage of the fact that many web sites allow a criticized business to provide a response and dispute false charges.

Here’s a better idea: if the criticisms are either completely false or potentially true but unrepresentative of the usual customer experience (i.e., I had to wait an hour for my food, all the lights were burnt out in my hotel room, etc.), the business should provide a warranty for good service. For example, the restaurant accused of slow service could respond with: “Any customer who is not served within 30 minutes of being seated can obtain a 50% discount on their check by mentioning the date of this post to the manager. Offer good until December 31.” This approach would not work in cases where it would be difficult to verify the quality of the service in question. It might be hard, for example, to definitively resolve whether a table of scantily clad diners are or are not prostitutes. But the majority of quality claims businesses would want to make, or at least proxies for such claims, are subject to simple verification methods. Such offers would be legally enforceable and, far more importantly, would be credible because a merchant’s failure to honor them would lead to an avalanche of really negative posts.

I have avoided quite a few businesses after reading a string of negative comments on web sites. Had those businesses cared enough to guarantee that I wouldn’t receive the same bad service that others complained about, I likely would have given them a chance.