Pubcon Austin 2015 – The State of Online Reviews By Thomas Ballantyne

Thomas Ballantyne is an expert on local search. In addition, he also has some great expertise and insights into online reputation management. At Pubcon Austin 2015, he shared some insights into online reviews and how they not only affect businesses, but how businesses can affect them for good or for bad. Here are some notes I took during his presentation …

Thomas Ballantyne talks about online reviews and online reputation managment at Pubcon Austin 2015.Thomas Ballantyne is an expert on local search. In addition, he also has some great expertise and insights into online reputation management. At Pubcon Austin 2015, he shared some insights into online reviews and how they affect businesses as well as how businesses can affect them for good or for bad. Here are some notes I took during his presentation:

  • You can rate anything online – even stocks on The Motley Fool
  • User-generated content = reviews
  • Bazaarvoice found that millennials are 84% likely to be influenced by online reviews
  • User-generated content is more influential than website content by brands
  • Basically, millennials won’t buy without input from other online users
  • Consumers own your brand messaging!
  • Amazon has been doing reviews for 20 years and is the largest single source of reviews
  • Consider what your online reviews look like today if you are considering your online reputation
  • 88% of users say they look online before they shop – but most businesses don’t think online reviews are not important or “not fair”
  • 70% of internet users have never written an online review according to AYTM Market Research
  • Stars = clicks in the SERPs – we’re visual, so star ratings stand out
  • Stars also equate to more revenue
  • You can use Schema.org tagging to incorporate star ratings
  • Most businesses need a C.L.O. … a Chief Listening Officer
  • You don’t have a review problem, you have a business problem
  • Billing problems are the #2 reason for negative reviews – Customer satisfaction is the #1 – according to Yelp
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for reviews … ask your customers for feedback

Hire people that will love your customers – that’s a great way to get great reviews

I think that last quote is extremely important. If you don’t encourage your team members to take great care of your customers, your online reputation will eventually suffer. I see this almost every day in my own ORM work.

Photo courtesy of Pubcon.

Verizon Customer Service Failure

My mom has been a Verizon customer for several years. So have I. We may not be for much longer, though. My step-dad passed away last week. Part of the insane amount of paperwork that needed to be done to finalize his affairs was to turn off his mobile phone and put the account under mom’s name. She also wanted to add a line to her account and put my sister’s phone on her account. To get this all accomplished, they headed over to a local Verizon store. Here’s are two of the many things that went wrong trying to complete the goals …

My mom has been a Verizon customer for several years. So have I. We may not be for much longer, though.

My step-dad passed away last week. Part of the insane amount of paperwork that needed to be done to finalize his affairs was to turn off his mobile phone and put the account under mom’s name. She also wanted to add a line to her account and put my sister’s phone on it. To get this all accomplished, they headed over to a local Verizon store.

Here are two of the many things that went wrong trying to complete the goals:

  • There were several computer glitches during the process of turning off the one phone and transferring the accounts. At one point, the person helping mom was on the phone, presumably to Verizon’s tech support team. At one point, whoever he was talking to hung up. The guy looked at my mom and told her the person cussed at him and hung up before the problem was fixed.
  • While using my mom’s phone on speaker, the guy at the store was talking to another person from Verizon. The Verizon person said there was something outstanding on the account having something to do with an item that was sent in for warranty service and a replacement was sent back but there was no record of Verizon receiving the defective item. This was something that happened almost a year ago. The item in question was shipped to Verizon before the replacement was sent, so it was hard to understand what the problem was. The person from Verizon said (while on speaker, mind you), “Let’s assume for a minute the customer isn’t lying about this.”

At this point, my mom took the phone from the store person, hung up and walked out.

So, let’s review:

  • A member of the tech team charged with helping the stores function verbally abused one of the people who work hard to support the customers who, ultimately, pay their salaries.
  • A member of another team charged with helping those same store personnel accused a customer of lying about a transaction right in front of the customer.

Needless to say, my mom was pretty ticked off when she got home. She was in the store for 3 1/2 hours and accomplished nothing. As she relayed her story to me, I got pretty ticked off myself. I decided to sent out a tweet:

Screen shot of first tweet to Verizon.


I got a reply fairly quickly:

Screen shot of reply tweet.


To which I replied:

Screen shot of my reply to Verizon's tweet.


Which elicited this response:

Screen shot of other reply from Verizon.


At this point, I thought to myself that we might be able to get some issues settled. So, I followed and DMed. Here’s the conversation that ensued:

6 2015-03-19_22-19-51


I thought the link they DM’d to me would be some sort of easy way to communicate with the “Correspondence Team.” The link actually led to the regular “Contact Us” page on Verizon.com. I went over it several times and couldn’t find an email address or a form with which to submit my complaint – only phone numbers and live chat. I didn’t have time to deal with a phone tree or a live chat.

My last DM received no response.

What were the problems here? There were several:

  • The tech team member was verbally abusive to the store team member – What is up with that? Both of these people are really on the same team – the Verizon team. This is certainly a leadership issue. You cannot expect good team members to stay good or stay with you if you allow this type of behavior. The team members will either leave or become so disillusioned that they will be ineffective; neither of which is a good option. The fact that this was done in front of customers made this even worse.
  • Another support team member accused a customer of lying while the customer was standing there listening – Anyone who has worked with customers has been tempted to complain about them with their coworkers. It’s one thing to wait until the customer leaves and then go into the back room to blow off some steam. It’s quite another to do so right in front of the person. This is another leadership issue. This type of demonstrated bad attitude needs to be quickly dealt with before business is lost. All it takes is one incident to lose that customer and, potentially, anyone who that customer tells.
  • There was no follow through on the customer complaint – I’ve written in this space before that you cannot limit the ways you are willing to communicate to customers. I preferred to email my complaint to Verizon, but it appeared that I was not able to do so. That is a huge problem, especially for a media company that provides email service. The fact that no one responded to my last DM was also an issue.
  • The Social Media team was not empowered or equipped to handle the problem – This is related to the previous issue. When I read, “… so we can report their behavior” I rather expected some action. There was none.
    • I understand that there may be a third party vendor monitoring Verizon’s social media. That’s pretty standard and a good practice. If that’s the case, it’s understandable that the people responding on Twitter are not equipped to handle email from customers. If that is the case, though, there should be procedures in place to escalate complaints and allow for a smooth transition between the social media team and those who are able to deal with issues. That can be done in a way that’s nearly transparent to the customer.
    • On the other hand, if the social media team is part of Verizon, then this is completely inexcusable.
    • The people who have front-line contact with customers need to be empowered and equipped to handle issues or have a clear way to escalate customers’ problems to those who are.

So, maybe someone at Verizon will read this and do something about these issues. They may lose my and my mom’s business, but maybe they can make some changes and keep their other customers.

Update: Someone at AT&T is on the ball. Within minutes of me tweeting out a link to this story, I received this response:
Screen shot of tweeted response from AT&T


Too opportunistic? Perhaps. Maybe I’ll check them out a little closer as I look for another provider.

Is Uber Too Useful To Fail?

I’ve been a fan of Uber for about a year now. It, along with services like Car2Go and B-cycle, help to fill a gap for convenient transportation. Uber has been in the news a lot lately. Not all of it has been good news, either. Uber is becoming one of those organizations that almost seems to have a “Jekyll and Hyde” personality …

Uber LogoI’ve been a fan of Uber for about a year now. It, along with services like Car2Go and B-cycle, help to fill a gap for convenient transportation. Uber has been in the news a lot lately. Not all of it has been good news, either. Uber is becoming one of those organizations that almost seems to have a “Jekyll and Hyde” personality.

First: My Positive Uber Experience
Before trying Uber for the first time, I heard a lot of talk about them from several of my coworkers. They all raved about the convenience and savings over taxis and other for-hire services. This past Spring, I had a business trip to Chicago looming, so I signed up for Uber so I could try it out.

When I got to O’Hare airport, I almost forgot to use Uber. I got in the taxi line and almost took a cab to the suburban hotel at which I was booked to stay the night. After the cab driver explained to me the almost IRS-like rules governing Chicago taxi fees for leaving the city limits, I remembered Uber and decided to see what the cost comparison would be. The estimated fare the app showed me was nearly half of what a cab ride would have cost. I hit the button and requested a ride.

The app showed me the name and license number of the driver who agreed to come pick me up along with his phone number and the type of car he was driving. The car pulled up, and I was on my way to the hotel in a very nice Lincoln.

Wanting to learn more about Uber from the driver’s perspective, I asked the young man piloting the vehicle what he thought about the service. He spent the next 30 minutes telling me his story and how Uber was great for him. He was a young man from Turkey with a wife and newborn son. He was putting himself through school to get his Masters so he could return to Turkey and teach English to college students there. He earned enough money working 3-4 nights a week doing Uber to support his young family and pay his tuition. This, even after paying the limousine service their cut of his earnings to use the car. My other 3 experiences with Uber in the Chicago area were equally good. I was sold.

When Uber (and other ride-sharing companies) were lobbying the Austin City Council to allow the services to run in Austin, I gladly sent a message to Mayor Lee Leffingwell in support of allowing ride-sharing in Austin. I thought it would be a great way to enhance transportation options in the city.

Now: The Darker Side
Fast forward to the past week or so and the very negative stories about Uber telling about some privacy problems and their philosophy on winning against their competitors. This is the part that makes me wonder if I might be a fan of a company doing things that I normally would not support.

First was the story about how Uber’s Senior VP, Emil Michael suggested that it would be good for Uber to pay people to dig up dirt on reporters who did stories that were negative towards his company. Spokespersons with the company, Mr. Michael and other executives tried to backpedal and deflect, saying that his comments were “off the record” and stemmed from the frustration he and other Uber executives were experiencing with certain reporters.

Within days of that story came another telling how a New York City-based Uber executive used data from the service to track another reporter as she traveled to Uber’s Long Island headquarters to meet with him. This, despite Uber’s policies stating that employees will not do this.

These two stories show that Uber has a bit of a dark side. The question is: Does it really matter? Scott Stratten calls those brands that people will use no matter what they do, “impenetrable.” Is Uber impenetrable in the eyes of its customers?

So, Are They Too Useful to Fail?
To be sure, Uber has taken a pretty big online reputation hit. From my perspective, the fact that Uber is convenient and can also save me some money (at least in Chicagoland) may be enough to outweigh their privacy shortcomings. But, if I were a woman who frequently traveled alone or a reporter, my opinion might be quite different.

My “jury” is still out on Uber. I’d like to see some changes in how they operate and some news about them taking some positive steps to protect the privacy of us who use their service – including from their own employees and executives.

What Say You?
If you are a current Uber customer, will you continue to use their service? If you’re not, will news like this keep you from giving them a try? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

My Friends’ Cable Conundrum

The whole thing started when Liz innocently went out to mow the lawn one day earlier this summer. She was unaware, but the cable company ran the coax for her neighbor’s television service under the fence, through her yard, around the back of the house to the neighbor’s house. It wasn’t buried or hidden, it was just laying on top of the lawn …

I’ve friends living in lower, southwestern Michigan who recently had a terrible experience with the cable company servicing his area.

What Happened
The whole thing started when Liz (not her real name) innocently went out to mow the lawn one day earlier this summer. She was unaware that the cable company servicing their area ran the coax for her neighbor’s television service under the fence, through her yard, around the back of the house to the neighbor’s house. It wasn’t buried or hidden, it was just laying on top of the lawn. This was a very odd way to run the line, especially since there was a utility pole closer the neighbor’s house from which the line could have been run. Here’s a diagram showing the setup:

The first placement of the cable TV wiring around his property

She found out about the cable when the neighbor came outside asking if her service was working. His stopped working and he was wondering if hers was out, too. It turns out, Liz had run over the line going through her yard and cut it. She didn’t see it because, admittedly, she’d let the grass get a little too high. It’s quite lucky the cable didn’t get caught up in the mower and cause more problems than just interrupted TV service.

Calls to the cable company brought out a technician a week later to route the cable outside of my friends’ yard. There are three things wrong with this scenario:

  • the cable was run incorrectly
  • because of that, it was cut by a lawn mower
  • the customer had to wait a week before it could be fixed.

If that wasn’t bad enough, when the cable was rerouted, it was still wrapped around my friends’ house, just outside the fence.

The second placement of the cable TV wiring around his property

It still wasn’t buried, it was just lying on the lawn. Since Liz saw it before she mowed, she was able to avoid cutting it. Still, this was unacceptable to her.

Liz, her husband, Steve (not his real name, either), and their neighbor tried calling the cable company repeatedly over the next several days trying to get someone out to run the line from the utility pole closer to the neighbor’s house. This would solve the problem and save everyone a lot of trouble. The cable company told Liz and Steve that they would have someone out in two to three weeks.

During one interaction, one person on the phone asked Liz if she liked her neighbor. When she responded in the affirmative, she was then asked why she would consider cutting the cable to his house if she liked him. Needless to say, that infuriated her. When the neighbor called, he was told not to worry about it because his service was working.

After trying in vain to get the cable company to fix this, Liz posted a video on her Facebook page expressing her frustration and outrage. Steve called the cable company and threatened to post the video on YouTube if they didn’t come and deal with the situation. That got someone out there the next day.

Lessons To Learn Here
This was an epic fail on the part of the cable company.

  • The first thing that went wrong was the placement of the cable. OK, it was also the second thing that went wrong. Had the technician run the coax from the utility pole closest to the neighbor’s house, none of this would have happened.
  • If there was a technical issue preventing a proper connection from that pole, had the technician asked for permission to run the cable through my friends’ yard and properly buried it, they would have likely given their OK. Informed consent is better than no consent.
  • Upon being alerted to the problem, the cable company should have dispatched someone within hours, not weeks, to fix things. It’s ridiculous to think that there wasn’t a way for them to solve this more quickly.
  • It took a threat to “out” the company before they would take the incident seriously.

So, basically they had three chances to do this right. Even after being told about the situation, they deflected and delayed rather than just dealing with the problem.

Here’s the lesson: Offer the best products, services and customer service possible. If you do that, you’ll go a long way to keeping current customers, attracting new ones and avoid reputation issues that come up when things get totally screwed up on a regular basis.

Every time I read about the incumbent cable companies complain about NetFlix or Amazon and how those companies compete unfairly, I think about stories like this and my own interactions with them and any temptation to believe their whining goes completely away.

How Not To Respond to Criticism – Online Reputation Management Lesson

Since starting with Rockfish over two years ago, much of my work effort has been devoted to online reputation management (ORM). It is a fascinating area of online marketing, to say the least. Because of my work in this field, I keep my eyes open for stories related to ORM and how brands handle managing their online reputation. Most of what I see, though, shows the negative side of how businesses, brands and people react when faced with negative reviews online. A recent “bad news” sighting involved a restaurant in France about which a blogger posted a negative report on her personal website …

Since starting with Rockfish over two years ago, much of my work effort has been devoted to online reputation management (ORM). It is a fascinating area of online marketing, to say the least.

Because of my work in this field, I keep my eyes open for stories related to ORM and how brands handle managing their online reputation. Most of what I see, though, shows the negative side of how businesses, brands and people react when faced with negative reviews online.

A recent “bad news” sighting involved a restaurant in France about which a blogger posted a negative report on her personal website. What was interesting about this incident wasn’t that the lady was sued. No, we see that all the time. What really caught my eye about this case was that the court ordered the blogger to change the title of her post because it showed up prominently in Google for branded searches on the name of the restaurant. Instead of holding the restaurant owner responsible for his own web marketing, the court blamed the blogger and left it to her to help clean up the restaurant’s online reputation.

I am not surprised the restaurant owner sued. This is often the knee-jerk reaction of many when faced with what they feel are unjustified negative attacks on their business. I’m also not too surprised at the judge’s ruling. Many in the legal profession are woefully ignorant of how the web works, especially in the area of search.

I believe what’s needed is for business owners, brand managers and others to understand that the person primarily responsible for their online reputation is the person they look at in the  mirror every morning. I’m reminded of a story Scott Stratten told (I think it may have been in an episode of the Unpodcast earlier this year). A friend asked Scott to help with what he called a “Yelp problem.” There were several bad reviews posted on Yelp that outlined the shortcomings of his restaurant. Scott visited the establishment one evening and found, from his own experience, that the reviews were pretty much on the mark. Scott told his friend that he didn’t have a “Yelp Problem,” he had a “service/food/pricing” problem.

That brings up one of the most important aspects of ORM: What you do offline affects what is said about you online.

According to the Techdirt article I linked to above, this particular restaurant had 190 Yelp reviews with a 1.2-star rating. Do you think that maybe the restaurant had more online reputation issues than just this one? That low a rating with that many reviews would cause me to think twice before visiting. Why didn’t the restaurant owner sue Yelp? I guess Yelp wasn’t showing in search results as much as you might see in search results in the U.S.

Instead of using bad reviews as the scapegoat for his issues, that restaurant owner could have tapped into the collective consciousness of his customers to see what they liked and didn’t like about his establishment. Armed with that information, he could have made changes that would have made him the envy of the restaurant world – well, at least his little slice of the world. If the owner had spent more of his time and effort on improving the food and service of his restaurant instead of putting that time and effort into a lawsuit he could have built his business the old-fashioned way: By providing his customers with what they want while providing a superior experience.

It’s not the bloggers fault that the restaurant has problems. The restaurant owner needs to look into the mirror and to see who’s really at fault … and who has the power the fix whatever is wrong.