So here I was, enjoying a full day tour on the beautiful Ningaloo coast of Western Australia. We'd been four-wheel-driving, sightseeing and snorkelling, and at the end of the tour our guide asked us to sign his visitor's book.
He added: "If you enjoyed the day, please write something on TripAdvisor - but if you didn’t, please, please, PLEASE don’t comment on Trip Advisor! Talk to me directly”.
The way he implored, you’d think one negative comment on TripAdvisor would be the end of the world for his business. The thing is, it very well could be. The impact of peer reviews is now, in many cases, completely out of proportion with the significance of the experience or product being reviewed.
The power of word of mouth is hardly new. It hasn't just arisen in the Facebook age, although you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise if you read comments in the blogosphere like “word of mouth trumps advertising every time” and “your brand is no longer what you tell consumers it is, it’s what consumers tell each other it is”. That last comment prompted a communication professional to remark that it's an old truth now suddenly being re-discovered by the world at large.
It's as if we have come full circle. Way back in the day, the local blacksmith relied on the good word of his customers to grow his business. Then mass media came along and provided multiple ways to get a business's name in lights. Now we’ve gone back to a stage where word of mouth is all-powerful - but this time around, ordinary people have extraordinary ways to deliver their comments to a global audience.
It makes you wonder where the balance is. When it comes to online reviews, it can look like every experience is either five-star or completely awful, with little in between. Presumably, many five-star ratings are instigated by businesses themselves - while at the other end of the scale, various cranks and crackpots make a point of targeting businesses by giving them appalling ratings. How many reviews are actually written by ordinary people giving an honest opinion?
A 2015 Harvard Business School working paper outlined a serious issue with the credibility of review sites, saying “reviews are fundamentally undermined when businesses commit review fraud, creating fake reviews for themselves or their competitors.” Writing in Forbes, Brett Baughman said "we place immense value in the opinions expressed by strangers without knowing what those strangers may be gaining from stating those views."
And how do we counter the risk of a terrible review? Well, you could resort to pleading like my tour guide friend - or, better still, you could make sure you always give your customers the best possible experience of your business or organisation. According to Baughman, "the best defense is to already have an engaged audience that will support your brand".
In many cases, that hasn't yet translated into action. Even though more people are recognising that regular employees - and the way they interact with customers - hold the power when it comes to your brand and reputation, that isn't always reflected in behaviour in the shop front or on the phone. There’s still plenty of dodgy customer service out there.
Fortunately for my WA tour guide, everyone in my group had a fantastic day and there was no motivation to write any negative reviews - and there was certainly no need for his pleading. But, interesting that he drew it to our attention. If TripAdvisor can make a big, strapping man quake in his boots, what can some of these other powerful tools do to our business?
In this age of extreme transparency, be great and be known for being great - and hopefully the punters will be kind.