Complain, Complain, Complain

Haddock recently pointed out a major problem with online reviews in Owning Up, a post about an unfriendly review of his restaurant on a popular foodie site. One of his frustrations with the review is that while the reviewer points out flaws with his experience, Haddock says that he never contacted anyone at the restaurant about these problems. As a commenter points out, this is a classic example of “don’t do something, just complain!” Haddock’s post is more about centralized review sites, although some of the issues with online reviews apply to bloggers as well, I think.

I always find it entertaining when I read online reviews in which people claim to have hated their food, and yet they ate it anyway. Hello, people. If you don’t like your food, make your opinion known to the server when he or she stops by to ask how you’re doing. Servers don’t ask this out of random curiosity, they ask so that you can say “yes, everything is wonderful,” or “no, actually, everything is not all right, this is not what I expected/ordered/wanted/whatever.” If you don’t like your service, tell the floor manager or the owner, don’t just sit there like a lump stewing about it. There is no excuse to have a bad experience at a restaurant, unless you are too lazy to speak up.

There are a couple of problems with online reviews, and I don’t think that these problems will ever be addressed; there’s no real way to address these problems, and I think that they are flaws which should be recognized by people who utilize the internet for reviews. I often use various review sites, and I try to keep the inherent problems of free-for-all reviews in mind when I use them.

The first problem is that most professional reviewers eat at an establishment multiple times, allowing themselves to get a wide spectrum of service, cooking styles, and so forth. Professional reviewers also do not accept gifts, which is a fundamental problem with a lot of foodie blogs/sites, in my opinion. Responsible reviewers disclose presents, but others don’t, making it hard to judge whether or not a review is being honest and accurate. There is a huge barrier between a professional and casual reviewer, and people need to understand that. I, for example, post reviews of restaurants and services I like on this site, with the understanding that people know this is my opinion, not necessarily fact, because I am not accountable in the way that people like Michael Bauer are.

The second is the anonymity issue. It’s quite easy to write anything about anyone on the Internet, and it’s hard to verify such statements. I could ardently tell you not to eat at the MacCallum House, for example, and people searching for that establishment might decide not to on the basis of this statement, which would be hard to evaluate since my qualifications are not known, and this site is obviously a personal site, not accountable to the same standards that a newspaper is. (Do eat at the MacCallum house, by the way. I am a big fan of their bar menu, especially on rainy nights.) Anonymity makes it impossible to figure out if someone knows what he or she is talking about, and it’s impossible to get a handle on someone’s credentials when they post under a false name.

Many of these sites provide poor ways for people to communicate or to clear issues up. Someone can post under a pseudonym, for example, and a business owner may have a hard time tracking the author down to find out what happened, when, and what can be done to redress the situation. As a general rule, posts from restaurant owners on foodie sites are frowned upon, and I understand the desire to minimize “he said she said” arguments, but it would be helpful if whiny posters would respond to attempts to contact them; I think that if you want to say something nasty about something, you need to be prepared to face it.

Something that also troubles me is that there’s no way to rate reviewers on many of these sites. For example, if I find a reviewer who generally agrees with me on basic topics, I would like to be able to give that reviewer a higher score. If I think that a reviewer is not being strictly honest, or that his or her opinion is radically different than mine, I would like to be able to give that person a lower score. These scores could be added up to create a system of authority which could also perhaps be used to weight reviews. When a whiner repeatedly posts biased reviews, those could sink to the bottom of the pile, allowing the honest ones to float to the top.

Haddock also makes an excellent point about complaints; most owners want to address their complaints. This may not always be the case, but it is almost always true, because business owners know how bad a poor reputation is. At one point, I complained about terrible treatment at a local establishment to the owner and I received no satisfaction until I went public about it, but I went public after trying to resolve the issue privately, which is crucial. Alas, I didn’t receive satisfaction then, either, but this was an isolated case, not the rule! Furthermore, I don’t slam said establishment on foodie sites, although it is tempting, because it is possible that my experience was isolated, although when asked about it in a face to face conversation, I will make my opinion clear. Furthermore, every other time that I’ve had a bad experience, anywhere, and complained about it, I have been satisfied with the response, illustrating the value of communicating about my problems, rather than just whining about them to people who can’t do anything about it.

If you have a problem with the service somewhere, you should talk to the owner about it. He or she may not be aware of the problem, and in any case, the owners/managers of an establishment want to make sure that customers are happy so that they tell other people about their good experiences. Don’t hide behind the internet if you don’t like something. Obviously, if something annoys you enough to complain, it probably annoys other people; by complaining, you can make everyone else’s life so much more enjoyable. Think of it as public service.

One local restaurant here has a tagline on their receipts that says something along the lines of “If you liked your experience, tell your friends; if you didn’t, tell us!” I think this sums up that attitude of most business owners quite nicely. No business owner is going to dismiss a complaint carelessly, and if something upsets you enough that you want to write about it, you should probably get the matter cleared up. If you can’t get the issue solved, by all means, shout about it from the rooftops of the intertubes, but do so under your own name.

Haddock’s post also illustrates an important practice for business owners: look your business up on the internet to see what people are saying about it. Since you can’t stop people from saying idiotic things, you need to be aggressive about finding these idiotic things and addressing them. Many of these people just want to feel special, and if you contact them about their reviews, they often feel better about themselves and edit/remove their business-bashing. By being on top of these things, business owners can keep their reputations positive.