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Do these jeans make my butt look big?

The answer is, well, subjective.  As is practically any other experience.   Yet for some reason a whole host of review sites have cropped up slinging subjectivity as objective reality.  What I don’t find particularly appealing about this trend is that our cultural focus on the negative can seriously harm businesses and what they are made up of - people.

Somewhere along the line we’ve lost sight of what it takes to build an economy: companies – big and small.   Most businesses (and I’m not naïve enough to say all) are built to make customers happy in some way.  They are not built to screw over customers.  That being said, businesses are built by humans and are therefore fallible.  Mistakes happen.  These mistakes can often make a customer miserable.  Admittedly, it’s hard to remember that when you’re on the wrong end of a mistake. 

Before you mentally jump to the BP oil crisis and get ready to nastily review me, please note that I’m writing here about the bread and butter of our economy: small to medium-sized businesses. 

I find it particularly appalling that one bad customer review – often highly subjective – can tank a budding business or at least severely dog it.  If you don’t believe me, try this on for size: I recently consulted for a small business which three years ago launched a product.  A blogger got his hands on it and wrote up his experience with the product.  It was a beta, so it didn’t work well and the blogger ripped the company a new one.  Well, three years later the company is well past their initial bobbles with the product but when you Google the business name, guess what shows up?  Yep, that initial review based on the beta.  The company has tried everything it can think of to engage that blogger and get him to update his blog accordingly – to no avail.
Now this may still mean absolutely nothing to you.  You may even think the company deserves it for releasing a product that ended up having problems.  Here’s why, however, you should be extremely concerned about this overall trend – because you may be next.  No, not your business, You. 

While I am sure we’re all familiar with the consequences faced by the young women and men who dabble in the occasional sex video or topless photo, you may be less aware that there are now websites where people can post reviews of people.  Did you miss out on sleep due to a cranky baby and then yell at your neighbor when they left their trash cans behind your car again?  That neighbor can now log in online and tell the world what a @*&^#! you are.
As an entrepreneur I may be biased but as a human being, I don’t understand the dog pile mentality that I see on business review sites and by that of over-zealous bloggers.  I am even more worried about where it might lead.
You may think me soft in the middle for suggesting it, but isn’t it time to start addressing this trend?   I do realize that this is a much longer debate – about freedom of speech, critical reviews, etcetera, etcetera.  But before you slip me the slippery slope stuff, how about starting with these business review sites? 

I wonder if it might help the situation if review sites allowed consumers to submit their reviews and then an internal review board waited until there was an onslaught of one type of review before publishing the overall result.  Or how about instituting a cooling off period whereby a business would be given 24 to 48 hours to make it right with the consumer before allowing a review to be published?  Unfortunately today, publishing becomes the pivotal issue.  While in academia the motto used to be publish or perish, in an online world where everything lives forever, it’s become publish and perish.

I understand that these approaches are not easily automated and therefore probably not as cost-effective as a post-and-let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may experience.  You can likely come up with better.  The point is I think something has to change. 

It’s true that people tend to remember the negative, but what a sad state of affairs.  It’s not like we don’t know how to do all this in a positive way.  There have been great examples of positive approaches to reviewing businesses. The first that comes to mind is Daily Candy.  It started out as a collection of people who selected products and services they thought were cool.  They had no particular expertise, yet over time they built a trusting following by sticking to their own rules – foremost of which was that businesses could not pay their way into selection.

Before I break out into a rendition of Accentuate the Positive, let me end with this: I think we owe it to ourselves to take a closer look at our culture of negativity and where it takes us.  One place to start may just be how we review small businesses.   I do believe that there is a way to give these businesses feedback that improves a consumer’s experience without actually hurting the business.  Just like there’s a way to tell a friend that khakis make her look more fabulous.


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