Tuesday 1 October 2019

Why bother to obey the law when it comes to reviews?

These are posts in an online forum from staff that claim they have been asked - and in some cases incentivised - to encourage a certain class of customers to post favourable reviews of a business, in this case an estate agency. Almost every activity mentioned in these posts, on the business's side and on that of the reviews site, if it were true, would be in breach of one or more of the CMA regulations.

You may - or you may not! - be surprised just how often we are asked this question. Even those of you that are surprised that the question is asked might be surprised if you knew which businesses are asking the question! In this article we will make the case for obeying the law, not because we believe that those currently breaking the law are about to have their collars felt (although that may well be the case - the CMA do not give specific warning of action, but they have been active in making noises about non-compliance where reviews are concerned for a while now) but because there are other implications other than being arrested and fined that flow from non-compliance.

First, let's recap on the main breaches we see:
  1. Cherry-picking: the practice of only inviting reviews from satisfied customers. Illegal.
  2. Gating: the practice of systematically identifying happy customers before the business invites them to write a review, often done by sending a customer survey to identify those most likely to write a five-star review. Illegal.
In the context of the rules, both of these are serious breaches - and therefore illegal. why? Because they are designed expressly to tilt the impression given to any potential customer in favour of the business. That's fine in the context of testimonials - because these, by their very nature, are understood to be selected positive comments. But with reviews - absolutely not. The rules are clear...
  • if a business invites reviews at all, it must enable all of its customers to write a review
  • the timing of such a review must not be controlled by the business, it must be at a time of the customer's own choosing
So - back to the question in the title of this article: why bother to obey the law? The simple answer would be to say 'for the same reason you obey any other law' but, at the moment we are hearing far too many businesses say 'but the law is not being enforced' and they are right. No business has - yet - been prosecuted for manipulating reviews, so back to the question. Here's our answer: 'because your competitors will use your non-compliance against you'.

How so? Nowadays not a day goes by when the press doesn't run an article about reviews being manipulated in some way, so consumers are aware that playing fast-and-lose with reviews happens. It only takes a nudge from business A to say 'do you know how business B has so many great reviews?' to sow the seeds of doubt in the mind of a savvy consumer.

An example

This innocuous little button is key to compliance for all HelpHound clients

We have a client in South London, an estate agent. They had two Google reviews when they joined HelpHound, they now have well over two hundred reviews on their own website and over a hundred on Google. They know...

  • any of their customers, indeed anyone at all, can write a review to their website at a time of their - the customer's - own choosing. Why? Because there is a button on their website inviting them to do just that.
  • everyone who has a review published on their website is invited to copy their review to Google, automatically
  • they are, therefore: complaint with the CMA regulations
But their competitors? They mostly decided they could do without such complaince. They also started with a small handful of reviews (sometimes none), but - to remain competitive with our client - they decided to break the law. How? By cherry-picking or gating (see above), sometimes both. How do we know? Because, surprising as it may seem, staff move jobs, and when they do, they tell staff at their new employers just how their previous employer managed to look so good. And that information in the hands of a competitor? 

"Yes, Mr & Mrs X, ABC estates' reviews do look very good indeed (but are you aware that they only invite their happy customers to write reviews)?"

That simple sentence will be enough to unsettle most potential clients, especially when ABC estates' cannot positively demonstrate compliance.

The lesson to draw

Your business needs to be compliant, not simply to stay on the right side of the CMA but also to defend itself against this kind of perfectly valid attack on its probity.

Further reading...

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