Why You Shouldn’t be Afraid of Customer Reviews

While it’s easy to imagine negative reviews leading to lost sales, they more often lead to increased sales of good products and increased customer happiness resulting from helping people make smart decisions.

Yesterday I presented a short, introductory talk called “7 Core Principles of Social Design” at the Voices that Matter Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. One of the principles I talked about was “reciprocity”, and how reciprocity is at the core of a lot of social interaction online, especially things like customer reviews and recommendations. When people read customers reviews from other people, they feel like returning the favor and write reviews of their own.

I pointed out that Amazon.com has had reviews for years, and only recently have their competitors added them. For example, Best Buy only added them within the last year, and Circuit City not too long before that.

I suggested that the reason for the failure to add reviews was not a technical one. These sites certainly had the technological know-how to add reviews to their sites if they chose to. They’re doing much more complicated backend processing in other parts of their site: customer reviews would have been relatively easy to add.

I proposed that the real reason they didn’t add reviews was fear. They feared that allowing the public to criticize products on their site would have several negative effects, including:

  • Decreased Sales: people would buy less product because they would avoid products with negative reviews
  • Angry Manufacturers: manufacturers of goods whose products got negative reviews would begin to be upset if their sales went down, souring the relationship

I received a question from someone in the advertising industry who claimed to be skeptical of reviews…that in his mind he thought that people would go out of their way to write negative reviews but not positive ones. In other words, a site would get a disproportional amount of negative reviews, even if the general sentiment for the product was positive. This, of course, would lead to decreased sales. This is a typical example of the fear that I was talking about. It’s easy to imagine the damage done by people who write negative reviews. As someone else in the audience mentioned, they were afraid that if someone went to a site and saw a negative review first then they would leave and be lost forever.

But here are a few points to keep in mind.

  1. Most of the time, negative reviews are genuine. Many products are bad. If someone truly has a negative experience with a product, they will write a review not just to get it off their chest, but because they actually want to help others avoid the same fate as they had. Most people write negative reviews to be helpful.
  2. Negative reviews are an opportunity. If you treat negative reviews as input into your design process, then you can actually use them as research to improve your offering. This is a tough pill to swallow, however, as it’s not easy to admit shortcomings.
  3. People seek out negative reviews. As someone in the audience mentioned, they almost always zero-in on the negative reviews. Why? Because they’re already interested in the product, they know the positive aspects of it. What they’re looking for are the negative aspects, that crucial information that the manufacturer or the site will never tell you. People know that products are never as good as they’re advertised to be, and seek out the balancing information so they can make a smart decision.
  4. People write positive reviews to balance out the negative ones. This is often overlooked when people think about reviews, they imagine that negative reviews simply beget more negative reviews. But if a product has a bad rating and people have had an opposite experience with the product, they’ll be more likely to write a review to balance out the message. People vote for the underdog, and generally want others to know the truth.
  5. People buy more of positively reviewed products While negative reviews might lead to decreased sales, positive reviews lead to increased sales. Therefore, better products are vetted more quickly and get sold more, while poorer products get vetted more quickly and sold less. This is actually what everyone in the chain should want…

In addition, there are several tactics designers can use to make reviews more valuable.

  • Good sites average reviews and show distribution. This dampens the ability for any single review to unfairly upset the pot. If people can clearly see that there are both positive and negative reviews for a product, they’ll be more likely to investigate and see why people are having such different experiences
  • Let people rate the reviews. On Amazon you can rate the review, which helps to moderate rants and overly-biased negative reviews. This allows the site to display the reviews in helpfulness-order, which means that people see the most helpful (positive or negative) reviews first. This also helps to remove the worry that a single unfair review will upset the pot.

In addition to these points, a huge factor is in convincing management that reviews are good for the long-term health of your site or product. They’re the ones who have to deal with any negative effects, so they’re the most cautious about implementing reviews.

Here are two arguments for using product reviews, tailored to the situation:

For product managers (who make the product being reviewed): Negative reviews exist whether or not they’re published. By stopping them from being published, you’re not stopping negative sentiment, you’re just slowing down the spread of it. But in the long term, ignoring that negative sentiment will kill you just as thoroughly as if it were fast-acting. Why not embrace the speed of feedback to improve your offering?

For retailer managers (who distribute products): Negative reviews are in incredibly helpful resource for shoppers. They appreciate knowing ahead of time what problems exist with the product. Yes, they might not buy because of a negative review, but if you have an alternative positively-reviewed product they’re much more likely to buy that. In this way customer reviews are a valuable resource for your customers…they’ll appreciate that you’re helping them make a tough decision, and end up happier customers as a result.

In general, people are coming to expect customer reviews as part of the shopping process. If you don’t have them, then they’ll go to Amazon or somewhere else to find them. In chapter 1 of my book Designing for the Social Web, I include a quote that sums this up nicely.

When I asked a shopper why they went to Amazon and scrolled immediately to the customer reviews, bypassing a tremendous amount of product information from the manufacturer, they replied:

“I already know what it’s going to say, it’s going to say how great their product is. Why would I need to read that? If I want to know the truth, I have to read what other people like me thought about it.”

Published: June 12th, 2008

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