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GUEST COMMENT Online ratings and reviews: bringing the trust back

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Public endorsements, reviews and ratings have become integral to the online and e-commerce experience, particularly in the UK (which is, it must be said, ahead of the rest of Europe in this area). However, fake reviews and a lack of trust can still be a concern, which is why competition watchdog the CMA recently announced an investigation into this sector. Similarly, Amazon has tightened its policy with regard to book reviews.

The CMA’s research found that UK consumers spend £23.3bn after reading online reviews in just six major retail sectors such as travel, books, electronics and home improvements. And that number doesn’t include other ‘big ticket’ categories such as furniture and white goods.

It’s all part of the rising tide of consumer power – hospitals, hotels and car dealerships all think nothing of letting customers publicly rate their service and/or their products. However, Aura Corporation recently carried out some research that looked at the websites of 52 of the biggest UK high street retailers specialising in high-value items – computers, electrical & white goods, furniture and department stores. These are purchases where reviews and ratings can be most valuable to consumers when checking delivery and aftersales service.

We found that eight out of ten UK retailers (79%) have no way for customers to publicly rate and review their service online – and a third (33%) don’t even have a system in place for public reviews of the products they sell.

The lack of review options among online retailers is a concern, but even those that do offer something might easily find themselves on the wrong end of the CMA’s investigation. The Amazon model, where reviews are embedded into the retailer’s website, and the potpourri of ‘cheap and cheerful’ ratings systems out there, can both lead to people being able to post reviews without having bought anything. It’s hardly trustworthy and can lead to the type of unscrupulous behaviours the CMA is trying to stamp out.

So how can retailers get the trust back? There are four key areas they should be looking at if they want to build a more reliable reviews system:

1. Independent

Any review system should not just be independent, but be publicly seen to be. That means bringing in a separate provider to manage it in a way that is unbiased and will treat the data with respect. Approved and qualified members of market research bodies such as ESOMAR are ideal, as they have the requisite standards of conduct.

2. Verified

Every review should be left by a real customer, which means verifying that fact. Car dealerships, for example, get contact details through the vehicle registration process and use them to authenticate the customer leaving a review. Retailers could have a unique code for each customer printed on his or her till receipt or provided at the point of purchase online, or furniture vendors could use the fact they get their customers’ names and addresses from the home delivery.

3. Transparent

Five-star style ratings and reviews need to be viewable publicly and immediately from the homepage. In addition, retailers should use both scores and reviews in unison – not just show the marks out of five and hide the comments, or filter and edit the comments so only the positive ones are visible.

4. Balanced

Retailers shouldn’t assume that a bad review is always a bad thing. Yes, fake bad reviews can be a nightmare, but just think about if you visited an ecommerce website and saw every review as ‘five stars’ and ‘excellent’. They become customer endorsements, not reviews, and might make you a bit wary – even if that was actually a sign of a top-quality operation. Whereas even a single review that marks it down to four stars because of ‘late delivery’ makes the whole thing seem more genuine.

Another point to bear in mind is the reactivity that consumers expect from reviews – a Twitter comment is posted instantly, so waiting 72 hours or more for an online review to appear can cause shoppers to question if they’re being taken seriously. The platform used by any retailer has to be fast and robust enough to sort, verify, monitor (to remove swearing, libel etc), format and post the comments in a day or so from when they’re made.

It’s not simple, certainly, but the benefits far outweigh any doubts: better SEO, conversion rates, sales uplift and, of course, greater consumer trust.

That said, most retailers still think review systems only apply to the products they sell. Given that the retail sector is often quick to promote itself as being forward-thinking and advanced (just look at beacon technology etc.), there is the opportunity for a retail brand to offer the chance to review their service as well – and then, most importantly, use that feedback to improve things.

Many car dealers, for example, offer customers the chance to rate the sales and aftersales quality they received as well as the vehicle itself. In an ideal world, online retailers should allow customers to review how easy the website was to use and how good the delivery (or click and collect) service was. Those with bricks and mortar stores could even extend their online reviews to cover the quality of service in those as well.

And from that, they can build an action plan to improve that service.

But no matter what endorsement options they consider and what they plan to do with them, the first and most important step is for retailers to ensure their customer reviews are dependable enough to ensure shoppers use them and trust the brand behind them. If they don’t have that, an investigation from the CMA will be the least of their concerns.

Mike Trotman is managing director of customer experience specialists Aura Corporation

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