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28 Jun

The customer isn't always right.

Quite often, I wonder how useful customer reviews really are. I think about it because a nudge to rate a service or product follows soon after the delivery. And I can recollect only a handful of times when I would’ve actually gone and rated the service or written about the experience.

In the case of Airbnb, I am likely to write a review because the host usually insists on doing so right in front of them. Or perhaps, the host went out of their way to help me with my stay and travel and I really felt like thanking them with a 5-star review. The reverse is also often true, although I've been lucky to avoid this fate: when the listing and what was promised was misleading at best and outright fraudulent at worst. This is another time most Indians make an effort to write a review; this time, a scathing one.

I have also noticed I am more likely to oblige the Uber driver or Swiggy delivery guy with a rating because I think it's the least I could do to help them out as every good review promotes good actors in the system and matters to them in the long run.

To add, I often find myself rejecting products I discover on Amazon if they do not have an average rating of 4+ stars across at least 100 reviews. In case of a well-known brand, I'm less inclined to check the reviews as I already know that the product is going to be good.

But anything I say is still anecdotal, so I asked a few people to understand how they perceive and use online reviews on platforms. Here's what I found.

Before I begin, let's first understand the value customer reviews add to the system and its stakeholders, from first principles:

For the platform: We've discussed in past pieces how marketplaces serve to act as an umbrella of trust for both buyers and sellers. Reviews are instrumental in facilitating this trust. Since it is hard for the platform itself to vet all its sellers for authenticity and quality, they let the wisdom of the crowd do the job.

Especially with no-name brands, if something goes wrong, a customer is likely to blame the platform instead of that particular seller. The customer is likely to say that it was Flipkart or Amazon that committed fraud, and not the seller. So, it is also in the platform's best interests to promote transparency and prevent anyone from gaming the review system.

For the seller: Reviews can act as a feedback mechanism for the seller. They can also serve the seller in the long term by boosting the perception of the product and the brand.

For the buyer: Reviews act as a way to understand what a product or service actually looks and works like. And who better to learn this from than customers who have already made the purchase? The crowdsourced knowledge works to filter out the bad apples from the system and enhance the user experience for the buyer.

So far, so good. But here's where my findings led me to paint a not-so-rosy picture.

1. Most reviews either skew 1 star or 5 stars.

One way to look at customer reviews is from the frame of public service. As a customer, you usually have no real incentive to write a review for a business, unless you've either had a superlative experience or a disastrous one.

Disappointment comes with a loss of either time or money, which incentivizes the customer enough to pen a review. Without delight or disappointment with the product, indifference takes over. Most customers would rather casually assign a rating if insisted enough, instead of taking the effort to write a detailed review. So, these star ratings leave no room for detail.

I know many friends who rate their WhatsApp calls 1 star, simply because they find the prompt after every call really annoying.

2. To make things worse, smaller sample sizes are inherently more variable in nature.

So, if a product has just five reviews, three of them are 5 stars and two of them are 1 star, you get an average rating of 3.4 stars, which tells you absolutely nothing about the product, to be honest.

In fact, it might keep you away from an excellent product, especially when those two 1 star reviews had nothing to do with the product itself, but with something that went wrong in the logistics.

Sometimes, the product might arrive broken due to no fault of the seller. Sometimes, the delivery person might be rude or uncooperative. Sometimes, the food might be excellent but another rowdy customer ruined your dine-in experience.

In all of these cases, the customer might give the product and seller a 1 star rating to vent but for no fault of the product itself!

This counterintuively makes 3 and 4 star reviews the most useful reviews on any marketplace. Simply because of the fact that the reviewer has taken the effort to mention both pros and cons in detail.

3. A simple star rating lends itself to tonnes of interpretation, which varies by product type and geography.

See what I'm saying?

A lesser known misunderstanding that plagues Indian customer reviews is that a lot of users here think 1 star is the highest rating and 5 stars is the lowest! It stems from our cultural understanding of number one: that it is the best or the highest level of achievement — 1st rank, 1st prize, 1st graduate in the family, and so on.

And so customers will often rate a service with one star to show how it is the best, signalling the opposite instead because on a rating scale, one means the lowest unless mentioned otherwise. The next time you see some random Indian guy rate a product 1 star and yet go gaga over it in the written review, you know what's happening ;)

But those who this without writing a detailed review only end up creating the wrong perception about the product.

4. Gaming the review system has now become a common practice.

A brand strategist I spoke to told me how the previous agency he work at offered paid reviews as an offering to their client. How they would go about it is: about 15-20 employees would be asked to order the product and rate it on the platform, thereby making the reviews verified and then the products would be returned.

No wonder, then, most people I interviewed for this piece highlighted that they would prefer the reviews on Youtube in case of big-ticket purchases.

The reason? Creating a video to review products on YouTube meant there would be more detail than a written review. However, customers prefer easy return policies for products like clothes, shoes, and bags, and the reviews are largely unhelpful when making a purchase decision.

Many customers have now realized that even written reviews can be paid for and deceptive. What makes things worse is nowadays, sellers themselves incentivize customers to leave a 5-star review in exchange for some cashback or freebie.

The problem has gotten so bad that now, Amazon has a mechanism to check and not publish what it may deem a forced review. Check the screenshot above that highlights Amazon banning both your account and the seller's account in case it senses you are giving a high rating and leaving a fawning review based on some monetary incentive.

On the other hand, Flipkart is notorious for only showing positive reviews of products.

Even in the case of food delivery apps, many customers I talked to flagged the issue of influencer-heavy paid reviews flooding the system instead of organic and legitimate user reviews. So, most of them mentioned that they would rather use social media platforms to get an honest read on the product or the brand.

5. Most product reviews are actually just unboxing reviews, not long-term usage reviews.

The way online review systems on platforms work is that they're only good at capturing a customer's first impressions. For a quick-consumption product like food, this does not matter. However, for more high ticket-size products like consumer electronics or furniture that are meant for long-term use, how their quality sustains or deteriorates over a longer span doesn’t get captured.

This is another factor that makes YouTube reviews more trustworthy. For products like bikes, cameras, washing machines, and refrigerators, many channels post 6-month or 1-year reviews or simply “long-term ownership/usage reviews.”

These reviews are often a lot more detailed, trustworthy, and paint a clearer picture of the problems that you can expect to come up with a product after a few months or several cycles of use. This is the kind of stuff that isn't possible to capture in a review that was written just after unboxing or initial use.

6. Yet another problem with customer reviews is that they create a kind of moat that might be undeserved.

For example, Amazon shows you an average of reviews over a long-ish timespan, sometimes even reviews that are a few years old. A seller initially might have been selling a product on this particular listing that was actually good. But today, they might be selling a vastly inferior product.

But just because they've amassed a 4.5 star average rating over thousands of reviews, the bad reviews they're getting currently might take time to reflect in their rating. And because the general tendency is to see the 4.5 star average rating across a couple thousand reviews, the recent influx of bad reviews might go totally ignored.

And you, as a customer, might be fooled into ordering a 1-star product, thinking you're ordering something high quality.

So, what's the point I'm trying to get at with these observations?

No point, really. It's just that our over-reliance on star ratings can work against us and in the long-term interests of the system as a whole. A big brand can pull customers purely based on brand value and the trust they've built so far; a lesser-known business will not have the same luxury.

From a business's point of view, the best they can do without indulging in malpractices is to respond to both good and bad reviews in good faith. It signals that the business is interested in having a dialogue. It also ensures that the brand perception isn’t based on just one side of the story: the customer's.

As a founder myself, I understand it is difficult to appease every customer for every little demand they may have. But when you are growing a business, and the brand is new, small communication missteps cost dearly. In that regard, I feel customer reviews are an often neglected aspect of building a brand and can be leveraged a lot better to build positive brand sentiment and perception.

Feel free to reach out to me with your stories with customer reviews or some ways you are attempting to do customer reviews differently. I am all ears!

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