Twenty years ago and during the 150-odd years preceding it we learnt about our cafes and restaurants from visual inspection on the street, word of mouth, possible newspaper advertising and an occasional review in the dining column of a reputable rag. Then the internet was born and eateries were able to create websites for themselves, attracting the attention of customers with graphic design, the convenience of viewing a menu, and contact numbers.
Pretty soon entrepreneurial corporate types had a bright idea to create online listings for hospitality, travel and tourism establishments in an attempt to attract attention to their site, and gather advertising revenue from third parties wanting to be exposed to a new audience. The public caught on and in an age of live revenue raising via voting during junk television, the instant public opinion became a reality. Praise and humiliation had been reborn, not in the medieval market square but in our homes.
With an initial purpose as a travel-review site, TripAdvisor quickly became one of the frontrunners used by travellers to book accommodation based on scores within the listings. Then the hungry Wall Street dog added eating establishments to the customer base. Despite claiming to enforce policies preventing compromise, the popularity and expansion of the site has become far from legitimate, and risks permanently damaging fundamental traditions of good customer service.
It is common knowledge that the competitive Asian resorts employ people to create independent reviews to maintain a high score and hence bookings, contrary to claims from TripAdvisor. Local cafes and restaurants have been offering free coffee in exchange for good TripAdvisor reviews, accelerating their listings tenfold in a matter of days.
Last Easter an intoxicated man holding a half-drunk beer demanded his money back from a startled local resort receptionist because ‘there was too much sunlight in his lounge’, threatening a bad TripAdvisor review if he wasn’t reimbursed. If you take a look at the TripAdvisor wiki section on ‘controversy and fraudulent reviews’ the problem is far more widespread than people think; the misuse is global and endemic.
So how much attention should we pay to unsubstantiated anonymous reviews? Well, not much given that the system is totally compromised by vendors and abused by consumers posting anonymous reviews, influenced by incentive, mood and alcohol. Reviews of establishments should be left the way they always were, in the hands of professional journalists. People able to spell, trained in language and chosen specifically for their experience in the subject they are writing about. They don’t shoot from the hip, making assumptions about an establishment after one trip. Only after several visits at different times will a general assessment be compiled about that place.
It’s a clever business, TripAdvisor. Every year they send out ‘winner’ certificates to most of the listed businesses that scored above average, many of which have manipulated their results with incentives for customers and reviews from friends. Businesses display their certificate or window sticker with pride because they think they’ve achieved something, but they haven’t. All they’ve done is given TripAdvisor legitimacy within the industry and encouraged further use by the consumer, to grow its profits.
Meanwhile the Massachusetts-based company, which earned US$1.2 billion last year, really doesn’t care that it lacks integrity and has introduced an unwanted dimension of hostility into the service industry. Its founding CEO, Stephen Kaufer, earned a million dollars last year and has a current net worth in excess of US$40 million, but it doesn’t pay contributors a cent for the content on its website. The priority is simply shareholders, at the expense of the worldwide hospitality industry.
So where do we head now? Customers of my generation and above would have witnessed a shift in customer service: the ‘servant’ of the nineties, and ‘companion’ of the 2000s, is now turning into the ‘opponent’ as uneducated anonymous cowards post spiteful reviews about service they may or may not have received. Previously, dissatisfaction was brought to the attention of service providers privately in person. Now staff are frequently bewildered by negative postings and descriptions of events by people who seemed satisfied, then covertly complained about events the staff have no knowledge of. The danger is that contempt for the public will rise as this complaint culture permeates the industry.
Customers, please write or speak to the person privately and allow them the dignity of rectifying your issue before humiliating them on permanent public notice boards. With record low margins in the hospitality industry and the highest insolvency rates in history, spare a thought for the people waiting on you before you help line the pockets of one of the Nasdaq’s top 500 companies with advertising dollars. They are oblivious of you, and of the hospitality provider.
Hospitality businesses can do just as much by simply ignoring the websites, encouraging direct contact and throwing the ‘winner’ certificates in the bin where they belong.