Exceptions vs. Understanding: How Customers are Getting Smarter About Comments

By Chris Bucholtz

Last night, I was seated at the bar of the 1400 in Alameda (housed in the historic pre-1900 Croll’s building), battling a crab dinner to the death. It’s hard to be dainty when eating a whole crab, what with the cracking and slurping and clinking of tiny forks and whatnot. Luckily, the guy seated next to me was familiar with how consuming a crustacean can be challenging to your comportment; he was a young, aspiring chef, who hoped to have his own restaurant some day.

We talked about building customer relationships – restaurants depend on return customers, of course – and about the technology that can be brought to bear to help with that.

While I talked about the positive things – like, say, CRM – that can help companies better know their customers, this guy pointed out one he didn’t really care for: Yelp.

At his past restaurants, diners would routinely give positive comments on Yelp – and then one negative commenter would surface and drown out all the positive with an avalanche of negative waves, as Donald Sutherland would say.

“Once in a while, we would have made a mistake,” said the rookie restauranteur, “but most of the time the person who left the comment was just a jerk. I mean, their friends would come in and apologize for them and say, ‘that guy’s a jerk.’ But most people didn’t know that and so the Yelp comments could really hurt us.

I felt an immediate pang of recognition. I worked in newspapers for a long time (for those of you under 30, newspapers were large sheets of paper that had descriptions of the day’s events printed on them. For those of you under 20, paper is a flat material made from pressed wood pulp). I was privy to the magic of the “letters to the editor” section of the newspaper. Reading these letters, it became immediately apparent that to write a letter, one needed to be either extremely happy with something or extremely unhappy. A dose of mental imbalance also helped. As with a restaurant and Yelp, sometimes the newspaper did something that deserved dressing down by the readership.

However, most of the time, the letters suggested that someone of natural ill-temper, on a particularly bad day, read something in the paper that galvanized him or her to the only action which was easily executed: a letter to the editor. Thus, the infuriated letters about the movement of “Mary Worth” within the comics section and the angry screeds about the tepid reactions by the police to complaints of barking dogs.

Fast forward to the present day, when writing a message about an experience is easier than ever (no stamps, envelopes or long-hand writing required). That’s meant that a lot of happy people have found it easier to make comments about places they do business with – and a lot of unhappy people as well.

All of these opinions are valid. The trick becomes one of discernment: as the reader takes in these opinions, is he or she able to understand which ones are valuable and accurate and which ones are the results of the outliers – the disgruntled, the disenchanted and the dyspeptic who may, because of the outsized emotions of their comments, skew perception.

I’ve written about how the mechanics of human memory slant perceptions toward the outliers – not my ideas, but ideas borrowed from Harvard’s Daniel Gilbert. This primitive survival skill is why we can look at a page with 10 positive reviews and one negative one, and focus on the negative one. This ability to project to the exception is how we avoided being eaten when our ancestors were first venturing from the treeline into the grasslands – the predator wasn’t waiting in the grass most times, but that one time was all it took, so we focused on the existential threat posed by that possibility.

As customer commenting sites like Yelp began to catch on, commenters began to gain real cache. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, in 2006 “A person like me” emerged as a credible spokesperson and it climbed steadily in the rankings until 2011, when it plummeted below “NGO representative,” ”academic expert” and even “CEO.” In 2012, it bobbed back up, but technical and academic experts still garnered more trust.

What happened in those intervening years? I suspect that consumers have become more sophisticated at reading between the lines when it comes to the opinions of their fellow customers. Back in 2007, when this was all a novelty, we defaulted to our exception-weighted view of comments. In 2012, we’re starting to realize that commenters can have their own agendas and be influenced by factors that may be outside the control of the business they’re commenting about.

Perhaps owing to their own participation, customers are learning that there’s a context to consider in all user-generated content, like comments on Yelp. It’s also helping shift the weight of the outliers back toward the center and keeping them from unfairly tipping the scales. And, should this trend continue, perhaps it’ll give commenting customers some perspective on what they’re writing; not every negative experience is a trip through whichever level of hell “customer dissatisfaction” resides.  That’s good news for the young chef – and for all businesses, really.