Don’t Fear the Reviewers

Mar 01, 2007 10:30 PM  By

Though most multichannel merchants have avoided posting customer-written product ratings and reviews on their Websites, those who have overcome their fear of the inevitable negative content swear by them.

For one thing, word-of-mouth has gained unstoppable momentum online. If people want to talk about a company, a product, or a service, they’re going to do so whether the merchant facilitates the discussion or not. And the benefits of customer ratings and reviews far outweigh any possible damage a bad rating for a single product can do to a brand, according to most experts.

“Bad reviews are like having a report card posted for everybody to see, and merchants hate that,” says Bill Bass, CEO of Madison, WI-based fair-trade apparel merchant Fair Indigo and former e-commerce analyst for Forrester Research. “But while it is a little painful to have your flaws exposed in public, it is a much, much better customer experience, and at the end of the day, that’s what you’re looking for.”

People trust customer-written ratings and reviews more than anything the merchant could possibly produce itself. What’s more, customer reviews can help convert first-time buyers, says Bridget Fahrland, executive creative director for Ann Arbor, MA-based e-commerce Website development firm Fry.

“If a consumer hasn’t bought from a retailer before, seeing customer reviews makes them think, ‘Okay, somebody else has bought from them, and they had a good experience,’” she says. Fahrland adds that customer ratings and reviews will often call attention to product details that the merchant may not think of: “When actual customers are using the product, they’ll add things in customer reviews that are really helpful to other customers.”

Animal supplies merchant Petco added customer ratings and reviews to its Website 18 months ago, after several years of consideration. The San Diego-based company had held off on introducing customer ratings because of potential management headaches, such as having to screen all the reviews for inappropriate content. When it did introduce customer ratings and reviews in 2005, it used a hosted application from Austin, TX-based Bazaarvoice.

Companies using Bazaarvoice can customize the number of product attributes customers can rate. Petco, for example, asks reviewers to rate products from one to five paws under the categories “overall,” “pet satisfaction,” “appearance,” and “quality.” Bazaarvoice charges a set-up fee plus a monthly service fee — starting at $2,000 a month for companies with annual sales of less than $10 million a year — negotiated on a page-view and order-volume basis.

John Lazarchic, vice president of e-commerce for Petco, says it isn’t possible to quantify the effect customer reviews have had on Petco.com’s sales but that anecdotally, they’re a clear winner. “At this point reviews are so pervasive on our Website, there’s really no baseline to measure against,” he says. “However, consumers have been very positive. We get significant unsolicited feedback from customers saying that the reviews were the reason they made a decision to purchase and how important that information is to them.”

Also, Petco customers in a recent survey said product ratings and reviews were their favorite feature on Petco.com, says Lazarchic. “It’s something customers embrace, and as more and more sites have them, it’s becoming something customers expect.”

Passionate appeal

What types of products and services do customer ratings and reviews apply to best? Anything people may want to discuss with others before they buy. High-ticket, considered purchases lend themselves particularly well to customer reviews, says Bazaarvoice CEO Brett Hurt. Products and services related to hobbies work well too.

“Anything people are passionate about,” Hurt says. “The more considered the purchase, the more emotional the purchase, the more important the purchase, the higher word-of-mouth is going to be.”

On the other hand, commodity items such as toilet paper or window cleaner may not lend themselves as well to customer-written reviews. “You’ve got to weigh the benefit of providing [customer reviews] vs. the effort,” Hurt says. “If you’re in a completely commoditized, low-emotion product category, then it may not be worth the effort.”

Understandably, many merchants balk at letting customers have so much control over the content of their Websites. Branded-apparel merchants have been particularly slow to embrace customer-written reviews, says Hurt. “That’s an industry with a very high velocity of word-of-mouth,” he says. “But it’s also an industry that is very fearful of having customers to talk positively and negatively about products on their sites.”

And who can blame them? Anyone who’s been on the Internet for any length of time knows the world is full of wackos with keyboards. But merchants can set simple rules to automatically filter out unacceptable content.

For example, Fair Indigo has implemented three rules in its customer reviews: no profanity, no mention of competitors’ names, and the reviewer must have bought the product to review it.

“You would think that would be self-evident, but to some people, it’s not,” says Bass. “We make our own stuff, and if you don’t have it, you can’t review it. And the only way you can have Fair Indigo clothes is to have bought it from us.”

But beyond those three rules, customers are free to write what they want, says Bass. He adds that negative reviews have helped his company’s executives spot and address problems they wouldn’t have seen on their own. For example, one customer pointed out a sizing issue with a chiffon top that executives had not aware been aware of.

“I much prefer that people know that before they order,” says Bass. “What you don’t want to have happen is for more people to buy something that isn’t good, because then you’re not doing anything to mitigate the problem.”

Adds Petco’s Lazarchic: “Negative reviews on the Website give you a chance to contact the customer and fix the problem. They also give the manufacturer or vendor some really good feedback about the quality of their products, or simply where customers have issues.”

Negative or mediocre reviews also help manage customer expectations, says Lazarchic. “If they are buying a mediocre-grade product, they know what they’re getting,” he says. “We’ve seen that customers tend to be happier when they really know what they’re buying.”

You take the good, you take the bad…

Also, removing negative reviews from the site would more than eliminate the benefit of posting customer reviews. “If you go to a site where they’re obviously filtering bad stuff out, that’s worse than not having anything up, because then you call into question the fundamental integrity of that company,” says Bass.

And just because a merchant doesn’t let customers publish negative reviews doesn’t mean customers aren’t having negative conversations about the product. “If a branded-apparel retailer has a product that has a high return rate, I will guarantee you that product has a negative word-of-mouth,” says Hurt. “The thing they’re missing [without customer ratings and reviews] is why it’s got a high return rate. When customers talk to each other, they do so in a very authentic way, which gives the retailer a tremendous amount of insight. It’s better than a focus group because these are people not getting paid who are helping each other.”

But what about clearly off-target and possibly fraudulent or offensive reviews? Aren’t they a problem? Not according to Fry’s Fahrland. She says customers will help merchants spot unacceptable passages. Amazon.com — the best-known user of customer-generated ratings — doesn’t read all of its reviews before they’re posted, she says. “But Amazon’s community polices itself. If people feel that a review is inappropriate in any way, they’ll flag it, and Amazon will look at it. There’s going to be that 1% of people who will use it inappropriately. The great thing is your customers aren’t going to put up with it.”

Bazaarvoice’s Hurt adds that some manufacturers will try to boost sales of a product with fraudulent positive reviews, but the efforts tend to be pretty transparent. “You can usually see these things,” he says.

As for bad spelling and grammar, Hurt doesn’t like the idea of editing consumer-written reviews, even for spelling. “When you’re talking with someone in a real-life word-of-mouth situation, the context of who that person is is very important for whether or not you’re going to sync up with them. So spelling errors tell you something about the person that’s writing the review.”

In the end, implementing online customer ratings and reviews is about getting over the fear of losing control. “When you’re dealing with brands, you’re typically dealing with companies that are used to controlling the marketing message,” Bass says, “and giving up that control and letting customers come in and talk about their product is not only beyond their comprehension, it is counter to everything they’ve grown up doing.”

But multichannel merchants sooner or later are going to have to wake up to the fact that the customer is increasingly in control.

“When you look at Web 2.0 and where the Web is going, merchants are going to have to realize now that the next generation of Web design is about relinquishing some control, but to an ultimate good,” says Fahrland.