Not long ago, it was rare for a retail or service business to be publicly criticized. If businesses appeared in the news at all, it was usually because they had applied for zoning variances, sponsored a softball team or opened a new outlet.
Then the Internet came along and consumers were suddenly free to share their opinions about the service they had received from their auto mechanic, the quality of their new flat-screen TV or the trustworthiness of their lawn service.
Today, as any politician will tell you, anyone can say anything about anybody. It's called democracy and it can sometimes be a bit rough around the edges but experienced practitioners will tell you it's best to roll with the punches and engage your critics – explain the steps you take to prevent consumer dissatisfaction and be upfront in describing your efforts to correct oversights that lead to online complaints. After all, the consumers who read online complaints and reviews are fully aware that what they are seeing is, for the most part, one-sided and overly negative – just as the advertising for the same businesses is one-sided and overly positive.
It's especially unfortunate when businesses panic at seeing negative comments and try to force the genie back into the bottle. This simply cannot be done. We live in a free country where consumers can, and will, speak their minds. The only thing that has changed is that businesses can now see what their customers have always said about them.
It's particularly unfortunate when businesses fall for quick-fix solutions that only make a bad situation worse. In the early days of the Internet, companies thought they could sue consumers into silence by filing lawsuits against sites like ours. This not only doesn't work, it produces even more bad press when, invariably, consumers' right to free expression is upheld in court. It can also be ruinously expensive, as companies who have sued us and similar sites will tell you.
More recently, small businesses have been falling for pitches like that from Done! SEO, a search engine optimization company that claims it can make consumer complaints disappear from sites like ConsumerAffairs.com. Though SEO firms can help companies optimize organic ranking for their keywords, and there are many high-quality SEO firms out there, claims such as this are simply misleading.
Retailers and service providers sometimes pay thousands of dollars a month for these “removal” services before they realize their money has been wasted.
A couple of simple facts to consider:
- ConsumerAffairs.com has, since its founding in 1998, had a policy of not removing complaints. Companies have always been welcome to post responses but, once posted, complaints are there indefinitely. We do not accept payments from companies seeking to have complaints removed; in other words, we don't take bribes
- Despite what some SEO firms claim, they are not able to somehow obliterate complaint pages on our site. They can generate tens of thousands of pages of fraudulent content claiming to be from real consumers but this is a) illegal and subject to civil and criminal prosecution and b) ineffective, as all of the major search engines are quick to detect attempts to spam their results with bogus postings.
- Consumers are not stupid. Those who do their online research before making a buying decision fully understand that many posted complaints are over the top. What they are looking for is a measured, positive response that demonstrates a business' commitment to addressing and solving customer dissatisfaction.
Taking all of this into account, ConsumerAffairs.com has recently instituted new programs that make it easier for companies to engage constructively with their customers.
Specifically, our “Accedited Business” program requires local retailers and service providers to subscribe to a Code of Good Practices and to respond promptly and proactively to customer complaints. And, our “Reputation Management” program for larger businesses establishes a direct, public communications channel that facilitates fast, efficient exchanges with aggrieved customers.
ConsumerAffairs.com has always been a pro-business, pro-consumer enterprise. Unlike some other organizations, we do not presume to assign grades to businesses or promote our product evaluations – we are merely a communications channel that allows consumers and business to openly and frankly discuss and evaluate their experiences.
Critics may point to our independent and vigorous consumer news operation as evidence that we have it in for businesses, but a fair reading of our the stories we produce each day will, we think, find them quite balanced and free of the political and special-interest bias found in so many non-profit publications.
Lastly, the mere fact that our business model depends primarily on revenue from advertising is itself evidence that we support and celebrate the right of consumers and businesses to engage in the kind of free-for-all that produces the greatest long-term value and satisfaction.
Our founder and editor likes to say that “a good reputation can't be bought, but it can be earned.” Can't say it much better than that.