The right way to manage online reviews

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online-reviews

Online reviews can be both a blessing and a curse for any hotel or chain. Good ones are a huge help in driving custom to the door, while bad ones will have the opposite effect. That may sound like a statement of the obvious, but there will always be those who feel that online reviews are not really that important, since people will tend not to take them seriously. After all, many have seen the internet ‘memes’ showing some quite extraordinary complaints about hotels and holidays, of the “beach was too sandy” kind.

While there may be some who regard reviews as somewhat akin to a newspaper’s letters page – a conduit for a disgruntled minority to let off steam – the reality is different. There is plenty of research to show that consumers do tend to shop around and will take notice of reviews. This is particularly the case for millennials, but not exclusively so. Indeed, Hospitality.net has noted a study by the UK Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) has found online reviews inform buying decisions for more than half of UK adults.

Managing the message

If reviews matter a lot, it begs the question of how hotels should respond. The same CMA report showed that some businesses had reacted to the potential threat of bad reviews and the benefits of good ones in ways that might, at the very least, be deemed unethical, if not downright unlawful. For example, there were cases of businesses in the hotels and hospitality sector actually paying people to write positive reviews, or penning such pieces themselves. No doubt these glowing testimonies about how wonderful everything was would have influenced the decisions made by some people. Even worse was the tactic of some to write or commission negative reviews about their rivals. Review sites were also found to be guilty of some poor behaviour. This included cherry picking the positive reviews without informing readers they were doing so. Similarly, others would opt not to publish negative reviews, but would pass the comments of the reviewer on to the hotel in question and invite it to address the concerns or complaints raised. ¬†All this is now under investigation by the CMA. Senior director of the body Nisha Arora said: “Millions of people look at online reviews and endorsements before making decisions such as where to stay on holiday, or which plumber to use.”We are committed to ensuring that consumers’ trust in these important information tools is maintained, and will take enforcement action where necessary to tackle unlawful practices. We have opened an investigation into businesses that may be paying for endorsements in blogs and other online articles where the payment may not have been made clear to readers.”

Staying legal

For these reasons, hoteliers need to be careful that any action they take in response to reviews stays within the law, or else the investigation’s findings may create a legal paradigm that they fall foul of. The CMA published nine recommendations about how hoteliers could deal with reviews while staying on legally solid ground.These included making it clear exactly where all reviews come from and what method is used to check them before publication. This will be complemented by a requirement that any commercial relationships are made clear, so that it is apparent how this may affect ratings. It also said all reviews – even negative ones – should be published, and without undue delay. If any are not to be published, it should be made clear what the reasons would be for this, such as the inclusion of bad language or defamatory statements. A number of steps were also detailed to prevent fake reviews appearing, or reviews where it is not clear that the writer was incentivised. One was that there should be a prompt procedure to remove them, as well as a bar on inducements to write positive reviews. Any endorsements that are paid for should be flagged up as such, while nobody should pen a favourable review while falsely posing as a guest.

An alternative approach

If all the above seems strict, it is done for the right reasons, and businesses should bear in mind that they can benefit from the rules, since it curbs any underhand behaviour rivals might wish to indulge in. What follows, therefore, is for hotels to make sure not only that their reviews are genuine and offer an authentic picture, but that the right response is made to any issues that arise. For example, if a company publishes a negative review on its site, it can then add in its reply to the customer, or state what it did to tackle the issue. This can create a good impression, as it shows the hotel is prepared to take onboard constructive criticism and make amends and alterations where necessary. Doing that is a great way to help win people over, whereas by contrast, customers lured in by fake positive reviews are unlikely to return for a second stay if they find the hotel is less impressive than had been claimed.