Recently, we learned that Amazon gives special treatment to its own merchants. The site expunges reviews that criticize Amazon's own shipping, fulfillment, and packaging. The practice flies in the face of all the best practices for hosting website consumer reviews--and isn't that risky?

The reality is that because of its size, market dominance, and generally sterling customer service reputation, Amazon might be able to get away with this conduct. Smaller companies, however, shouldn't try to do the same.

As I've written about before, customer service matters now more than ever, thanks to the advent of social media. These days, consumer reviews and ratings factor strongly in the customer service mix--particularly the post-purchasing experience. To tell you how and why, I spoke with Jim Houlihan, director of content authenticity (note that job title) at Bazaarvoice, one of the industry's largest providers of consumer ratings and review management and syndication.

Trust is Everything

Bazaarvoice strives to "bring the voice of the customer closer to the heart of a company's business." Indeed, that's a good place to start a discussion of ratings and reviews best practices. Houlihan points out that when dealing with content generated by word-of-mouth--particularly reviews--consumer trust has to be inviolable. If we consumers cannot trust what we're reading, whether it's about a product or a service or an experience, we will ignore it. Customers tend to blame the company, even if they weren't behind the false reviews. In other words, having authentic reviews is as important to managing your reputation as having positive reviews.

Houlihan reminds us that it's a lot easier to tell a falsehood when you don't have to look someone in their eyes. Don't assume your negative reviews have been falsified by competitors trying to make you look bad. In its review management process, Bazaarvoice's technology pairs algorithms with human review moderation to help prevent fraudulent or overly self-promotional reviews. That said, Houlihan says he has to educate clients to ensure that they are not censoring or removing negative reviews--it's a natural impulse. "All reviews, both positive and negative, have importance," he says. "Having some negative reviews on your site enhances the trust of your buyers because no company or product is perfect."

Insights from Reviews

In my last article, I spoke about listening as one of the 10 objectives businesses can use to build social media strategies. Similarly, using your customers' reviews as a listening study can provide you with insights and opportunities you may never have considered. Listening to negative reviews gives you an opportunity to improve your product or service. And, consumer feedback can fuel your creativity for new products or services or tip you off to market trends you didn't know about.

Review Best Practices

When implementing ratings and reviews on your site, here are some of Houlihan's tips:

  • Be transparent. If you court experts or endorsers to write product reviews, whether they're positive or negative, you should disclose that this person has been recruited or compensated for their review. This kind of disclosure is actually required by the Federal Trade Commission.
  • Be encouraging. Bazaarvoice finds that only about 15 to 20 percent of clients' reviews come in "organically" (meaning unsolicited) and yet, according to Econsultancy, a highly-rated product will increase the likelihood of purchase for 55 percent of consumers. It's not only perfectly acceptable but a good idea to encourage your consumers to review and rate you. Ask for the review on an order confirmation page or via a post-purchase email. Or have consumers test and review products at an event or store. These reviews can even act as drivers of foot traffic and sales at your brick and mortar store if you have one.
  • Moderate expediently. Once submitted, reviews should undergo some sort moderation before going live--generally to weed out self-promotion, spam, profanity, and abusive language. Do it quickly so the review remains relevant and you retain credibility.
  • Respond. Most consumers posting positive reviews don't expect a thank you from the shop owner, but when a negative review gets posted, at the very least you should acknowledge the complaint. If you can, help direct the reviewer toward a resolution or describe the action you will take as a result of their comment.

  • Protect your brand. The larger the brand, the greater the impact a scandal can have. Don't let too many negative reviews go unanswered or allow yourself to fall prey to the desire to manipulate your reviews. "If you're a cheater and violate social ethics, in time it will come back to haunt you," cautions Houlihan.

In other words, be mindful of the power of the public to impact your business. Their words can help build you into a success or take you down, so pay attention.