What’s fair vs. foul in managing negative reviews?

Source: fashionnova.com
Jan 31, 2022

Fashion Nova last week was ordered to pay $4.2 million to settle allegations that it concealed unfavorable reviews on its website.

According to the complaint from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the fast-fashion site, known for its collaboration with artists Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, used a third-party review management tool that allowed four- and five-star reviews to automatically post on its site while requiring approval for lower-starred reviews.

The FTC said that from late 2015 until November 2019, hundreds of thousands of lower-starred reviews were never approved or posted. The case is the FTC’s first involving a company’s efforts to conceal negative customer reviews.

“Deceptive review practices cheat consumers, undercut honest businesses, and pollute online commerce,” said Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a statement. “Fashion Nova is being held accountable for these practices, and other firms should take note.”

Fashion Nova denied any wrongdoing.

The FTC said it has also sent letters to 10 other unnamed companies about possible deceptive online review practices and issued new guidance for online retailers and review platforms. Beyond warning against writing or procuring fake reviews, the FTC advises against not fully disclosing if there is an incentive behind the review, soliciting review submissions from likely only positive reviewers and treating negative reviews with greater scrutiny.

The internet is full of stories of consumers being offered refunds, gift cards and cash to delete negative reviews.

A Wall Street Journal article last year detailed how some customers were being offered double the value of their refund to delete a negative review. Third-party sellers are allowed to contract buyers through Amazon’s internal messaging service, although third-party software that matches customers’ shipping information enables some sellers to attain customer email addresses.

The FTC’s updated guidance also includes a warning against using reputation management firms that promise to improve customer reviews and ratings. The FTC wrote, “Make sure you understand what they are doing. You can be held responsible for what they do on your behalf.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What do you think is fair play versus crossing the line setting policies for reducing negative online reviews? Is it legitimate or shady to offer a refund to encourage a customer to remove a negative review or change it to a positive one?

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25 Comments on "What’s fair vs. foul in managing negative reviews?"

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Mark Ryski

Customer reviews are an important communication channel for retailers, but the fact is it can be risky if not managed well. Since there are no formal rules for how online reviews are supposed to be managed, every business will need to decide how to approach it. Since negative reviews can be caused by simple miscommunications, I believe that the retailer should have an opportunity to restore its reputation. I don’t see anything wrong with encouraging customers to remove past negative reviews if they have subsequently satisfied the customer.

Bob Amster

Refunds and other benefits should be awarded to customers to redress their bad experiences. A benefit should not be a quid pro quo for removing what was a legitimate customer’s view (the bad review) of a retailer at the time.

Liza Amlani

What’s fair is that all reviews should be posted unless they are offensive. Negative reviews and experiences should also be called out across social – let the people have a voice so brands can be held accountable for bad practices.

On the flip side, I can imagine there may be some unfair and dishonest reviews posted by other brands to sabotage a competitor but this is a risk retailers take across physical and digital stores. Not to be cynical but there are a few bad seeds out there looking to make waves.

Georganne Bender

The only time a review should be removed is if it is not for the actual product being reviewed, is obviously a fake, or contains inappropriate language. Other than that every review, good and bad, should be posted.

Rewarding customers to take down bad reviews is a whole other can of worms; it’s a bad practice that shouldn’t happen. When consumers read reviews they are doing so because they genuinely want information about the product, not a candy-coated story.

Gary Sankary

Companies that engage with customers who leave negative reviews to try to make things right have a much better chance of mitigating the impact of the reviews than those who prefer to pay off reviewers and obscure their customers experiences.

Rich Kizer

Certainly it is important to respond to every complainant and to inform them that their concerns have been escalated up to a higher level. Acknowledging the importance of their complaint is critical. You must especially thank them for bringing this issue to you. A small deal such as 25 percent off the next transaction, etc., will really smooth the waters. It is incredibly important for customers to know how much we care for them. Silent responses will hurt you.

Gene Detroyer

Handling a negative review properly can be more valuable than all the 5-stars on the list. It communicates that the retailer is actually paying attention and cares about what the customer thinks.

Way back in the ’70s there was a study that customers were 10 times as likely to tell others about their negative experiences than their positive ones. Though the research didn’t measure it I also thought that a customer was even more likely to tell the story of how a company recognized and fixed their complaint. How many of us tell the stories of how companies positively responded to such a situation?

A signpost listed the appropriate action. Actions that could build customer loyalty rather than lose it:

  • Respond quickly;
  • Acknowledge the customer’s complaint;
  • Apologize and empathize;
  • Take Responsibility — even if it wasn’t your fault;
  • Provide an explanation if needed;
  • Take the discussion offline;
  • Make it right.
James Tenser

A great resolution of a service problem is a chance to earn lasting loyalty. Customer service leaders understand this, and there is ample academic research to support this premise.

Rather than suppress bad news when it occurs, Fashion Nova and others like it should embrace the opportunity. When negative reviews are visible, make your successful responses just as visible.

Dion Kenney
10 months 8 days ago

The problem with UGC is that not all opinions are equally valid, not all opinion writers are equally talented writers, and the distribution of reviews written is generally not consistent with the actual distribution of user opinions.

This last point reflects a verifiable selection bias in who posts reviews, with postings by users with extreme opinions disproportionately more likely than postings by users with moderate opinions. As with so many other examples of public opinions, it is the “squeaky wheels” that demand and get the attention.

Rich Kizer

The key is that you must let the customer know you care by replying to them and informing them their issue is very important to you and is being escalated to your customer satisfaction department. Thereafter, they must get an apology letter and perhaps a gift of some sort. It is important that the customer knows you care. Ignoring or not responding to these issues are the worst thing you can do. Remember: Customers talk and sometimes embellish. Don’t let that happen.

David Slavick

Any firm that enables product and service reviews and then suppresses or pushes the feedback to the bottom of a scroll is employing unfair trade practices. If you open up your business to receive the positive, you must equally embrace the negative.

Jeff Sward

I think transparency has a pretty simple definition here. If you solicit reviews, you post reviews. Maybe it’s as simple as in chronological order. And hopefully you learn from reviews. And take appropriate actions based on reviews. If somebody takes the time to talk to you, that’s gold. Or maybe it’s a lump of coal, but deal with it.

Neil Saunders

There is a balance to be struck here. Review selection should be balanced and not biased to favorable comments. However some consumers leave malicious and unreasonable reviews, so where is the line to be drawn in deciding what does and does not show up on a site? There is no easy answer. The best practice I have seen is to allow all reviews but to also ensure the retailer or company owner can respond and provide their view – that way the reader gets all the information and can make their own mind up.

Dr. Stephen Needel

I’m hoping none of the readers are shocked that a company-owned site would fake reviews or strive to remove negative reviews by whatever means are available to them. If you run a crappy business, why would you want anyone saying so on your website? Trusting a company’s own site for reviews of that company is why the phrase “caveat emptor” was born.

Brandon Rael

Customer reviews are a powerful engagement tool for existing and new customers. The process should be handled objectively, and this includes both positive and negative reviews. An important part of the customer experience is providing this objective platform for customers to share their feedback, with the hopes that the company will read, respond and react to both negative and positive reviews.

There is always room for improvement, and who better to provide constructive feedback than customers who represent a cross-section of the retailers’ target audience. The main exceptions to this rule are when negative reviews are truly dishonest and potentially abusive or offensive. In our digital-first world, we have to be aware that there are those exceptions out there who troll brands and want to steer a narrative a certain way.

Steve Montgomery

In today’s world it is very easy to quickly send a negative review and consumers have the right to do so. The underlying issue is, what was the reason they sent it? Retailers should have the opportunity to contact the customer and attempt to rectify the situation.

Should those attempts fail the retailer faces the question, what do I do now? If the reason for the poor review can be addressed for future customers, the retailer would be well served to accept the negative review and post a thank you for bringing the issue to their attention and then explain what they have done to ensure that is does not happen again.

Joan Treistman
Until I read all the comments related to this article, I had no idea how complex this situation is. Competitors positing negative reviews? Wow! I’ve always wondered about the retailer that responds to a negative review by saying “Thank you. We appreciate your remarks”, but doesn’t acknowledge the complaint. It seems to me there is no one answer and the idea of reducing negative online reviews starts to sound shady by nature of the phrase. If retailers state guidelines for posting positive and negative reviews they have a head start for a good reputation. They can identify their approach to negative reviews each time one shows up. Maybe something like this as a response to a negative review will be helpful and keep the narrative transparent on both sides. “Thank you for letting us know. We’ll try to resolve this issue on our end. If this involves products you’ve received, we’ll be in touch with you directly and see what we can do to turn this around. We’ll be asking you to post your reaction… Read more »
Peter Charness

As the discussion indicates, it’s hard to say what’s fair and foul, and opinions will cluster around various shades of grey. A fake or competitor negative review — foul. A customer writing a bad review because they didn’t read the instructions — grey and an opportunity for good customer service. What does seem to jump out here is that fair vs foul is different from what’s legal and not legal, as in when if a fine from the FCC is “fair.”

Ananda Chakravarty
From the FTC perspective, this is a matter of customer rights and false advertising practices — where retailers are not offering full transparency to public opinion about their products or offering a misguided perspective to their product set. When customers depend so much on purchasing based on these reviews (>89% from a TrustPilot report), it becomes important that these are impartial and accessible by the consumer. As a matter of fact, retailers shouldn’t have a say as to what the customer is posting — that is purely the customer’s opinion, whether it’s negative or positive. However, they should have a say in what happens after the review is made available. As someone on this thread earlier mentioned, or suggested, any review is a good review, so long as it’s addressed. Smart retailers will offer a recourse to make the situation right for the customer, which can include refunds or replacements, but these will be addendums to the original review, not removal of it. By its very nature, such actions will change a negative review into… Read more »
Brad Eckhart

Like most issues that are raised around business ethics (including the suppression or modification of customer reviews), if it feels wrong, it probably is. I don’t see anything wrong with asking a customer to remove or change a negative review once the retailer has made things right with the customer. If that includes offering a refund or credit toward a future purchase and the customer is satisfied with this action, I see nothing wrong with this as a policy. Suppressing negative reviews is definitely crossing the line, in my opinion.

Lucille DeHart

Reviews and ratings are true conversion currency and do need to be treated with a level of honesty and respect. Of course there are customers who use this to vent and disrupt, but many consumers do look to peer feedback as a means of guidance and validation.

Brands/companies SHOULD NOT be deceptive. They want to tip the scale to be as favorable as possible, but they would be better served to respond to negative reviews and ask the customers to re-comment or correct their reaction based on how the brand responded to a situation.

I know a lot of DRTV companies that pay to have positive reviews posted. I do not support this behavior. Having customer feedback is very valuable and allows you to have insights into what your clients are truly thinking. Don’t sweep it under the rug, address it and make the engagement a positive experience.

Honestly, if you keep getting bad company/service/product reviews, maybe you should not be in business anyway.

Craig Sundstrom

What the H***: why do we even need to ask this question? Of course it’s NOT OK to (essentially) bribe people to not say bad things about you; if you don’t like bad reviews, then do things right.
Now fraudulent bad reviews are another matter: they should be pursued with the same diligence as any other libel.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.

Consumer interactions at any level or type (reviews, complaints, chats, etc.) represent a moment of truth for the marketer. These represent realistic opportunities to engage with your customers. Research has shown that the mere response to a negative complaint or review, even if the situation is not resolved, produces a favorable reaction from the consumer. Just listening and responding, even if the response does not completely satisfy the customer, demonstrates respect for the customer and is appreciated by the customer. Therefore, companies should respond to reviews to clarify, fix, cement the relationship, etc. Unfortunately, therein lies the rub. How many times have you received a response to a negative review?

Over the top negative reviews need to be addressed to determine legitimacy and the appropriate response.

Rachelle King

Fashion Nova has just reinforced why so many consumers turn to Amazon for product reviews. While Amazon certainly has room for improvement, for the most part, customers can share their product experience, good or bad.

But, let’s not assume consumers don’t already take these reviews with a grain of salt. We have all received an incentive, at some point, to write a positive review.

The thing is, if you want the positive reviews then you have to accept the negative ones too. Or else, be honest that you don’t want reviews, you only want consumers to say nice stuff about your brands. And, the FTC may take issue with that.

Anil Patel

Negative reviews are not really a threat but an opportunity to enhance brand reputation. This is basically the first lesson that entrepreneurs are supposed to embrace in all their business practices. Transparency is vital for a business’s long-term growth. Moreover, customers always appreciate it when brands act and communicate responsibly to eliminate their pain points. However, building a brand while being transparent takes time and only purpose-driven entrepreneurs are going to understand this.

Brands that use shady techniques to get rid of negative reviews may make money in the short term, but that’s it for them and will slowly lead to a doom’s path.

"If you open up your business to receive the positive, you must equally embrace the negative."

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