Like many things, including 'barista' coffee, Cliff Richard and Volkswagen, Trip Advisor started out as a Good Thing. A place where customers could post real reviews. And then, like Starbucks, Mistletoe & Wine and Dieselgate, it stopped being good and became very bad indeed.
For any consumer-facing small business, Trip Advisor is a pain in the backside. If you deal with a lot of customers then it is highly likely that your business review profile will be the usual mix of fair and unfair reviews. Very few firms escape the ire of disgruntled customers using Trip Advisor as a weapon.
All of which, you may feel, is democracy at work. As the company is able to post a management response to any review you may feel this is balanced. Sadly, it isn't: most Trip Advisor visitors tend to be on the customer's side and view the management responses with scepticism, even though the responses tend to be factual rather than emotional, unlike the review.
If you subscribe to the view that the customer is always right then we'll have to part company here. Because anyone who deals with The General Public knows that Marshall Field's customer-friendly slogan is a load of old tosh.
I know from bitter experience that Trip Advisor is not always an honest and fair reflection of customer experience. We have a handful of bad reviews and, with one exception, I can honestly say they are all nonsense. Each one is the final step in a failed campaign of blackmail against my business. After two more similar threats this month I've decided enough is enough.
I have been in business long enough to know that keeping customers happy is key. I am not blasé to the relationship between a successful business and happy customers. But there are some customers that simply can't be pleased, whose motivation in complaining goes beyond rectifying a perceived wrong and veers into blackmail.
It would be easy to get stuck in a vortex of moaning and complaining about this state of affairs and Trip Advisor in particular. But this is the world we live in and it won't change, at least not while Trip Advisor's review and policing is so catastrophically weak. We have decided to fight back. If you run a small business or if you just wonder what the hell is going on on Trip Advisor, I hope this is of interest.
Firstly, we have significantly improved our post-hire feedback process. We've created in-car feedback forms and post-hire emails to capture hirers' immediate thoughts on their experience. We have also strengthened our customer fault reporting systems so that any defects with the cars are rectified faster. I don't just want the positive, glowing reports - although they're great - but the scathing and constructive too. The latter help me improve my business, which is the real purpose of the exercise, and also nip any problems in the bud immediately, before they escalate into screaming emails and Trip Advisor reviews.
The risk with this process, which one customer has already demonstrated, is that a certain type of customer seizes on the opportunity to use a problem or issue to extract some benefit. They see you take reputation seriously and that you've made it easy for them to feed back. This usually involves exacerbating a minor issue, requesting some form of recompense and, during the course of various emails, threatening a negative Trip Advisor review unless their demands are met.
This, plain and simple, is blackmail. We investigate every complaint and address them honestly. But If we don't find in the customer's favour then we shouldn't be blackmailed. Equally, if you are genuinely unhappy with the experience you should post a review, irrespective of what financial recompense you receive.
Since this small minority of aggrieved and outraged customers will always be there, we clearly needed a second line of defence. Where a customer threatens to post a poor review unless they receive compensation, we refer the matter to our solicitor when the review appears. We also provide a full management response on Trip Advisor including exerts from the customer's emails.
All companies make mistakes, but very few deliberately provide a poor service. I know how hard my team works to deliver quality hire cars and a great experience. That is their job and they do it well. We value constructive feedback and, where we're wrong, we hold our hands up and admit it. We rectify. But we won't be blackmailed.
I hope that our new approach helps us improve what we do - by creating a stronger feedback loop with customers - but also protects us from the morally questionable minority who feel it is their right to extract the maximum from any situation.
It would be great to hear your experiences of Trip Advisor, customer service and Great Escape Cars.