When I tell people that my husband bought us a mattress without once laying on it, they think he’s crazy. We’re crazy. It’s hard to argue with results, though. This is by far the most comfortable mattress I’ve ever slept on, and we got a great deal on it. It was definitely a risk — and we knew that — but the Amazon reviews convinced us we’d love it. And the negative reviews were the most helpful for making that decision.

  • Some consumers don't trust reviews that they can tell have been filtered -- because there's a lot of information in negative reviews.
  • Negative reviews help consumers understand the potential pitfalls of their purchasing behavior and make fully educated decisions about how and with whom to spend their money.
  • How businesses react to negative reviews also gives consumers insight into how "self-aware" the business is and how it handles conflict or stress.

When I tell people that my husband bought us a mattress without once laying on it, they think he’s crazy. We’re crazy.

It’s hard to argue with results, though. This is by far the most comfortable mattress I’ve ever slept on, and we got a great deal on it.

Still, why did we drop several hundred dollars on a mattress we’d never touched?

It was definitely a risk — and we knew that — but the Amazon reviews convinced us we’d love it.

And we do.

Why reviews matter

Here are some of the key takeaways from last year’s annual BrightLocal Local Consumer Review Survey:

  • 92 percent of consumers read online reviews
  • 40 percent of consumers form an opinion by reading just 1 to 3 reviews
  • Star rating is the No. 1 factor used by consumers to judge a business
  • 44 percent say a review must be written within 1 month to be relevant
  • Only 13 percent of consumers would consider using a business that has a 1- or 2-star rating
  • 68 percent say positive reviews make them trust a local business more (vs. 72 percent in 2014)
  • Consumers are becoming more concerned about fake reviews

There was news this week that Placester acquired RealSatisfied — and that another Australian-based platform, RealAs, was launching user ratings so buyers and sellers could rate each other.

I love reading new reviews of former employers on Glassdoor (don’t tell me I’m the only one who does this…), and I recently discovered a couple of new websites that collect reviews about how different employers treat, pay and promote the women on staff — as well as information about maternity leave benefits and whether the company has a pumping room — Fairygodboss and InHerSight.

All of this made me think about how reviews are used in real estate and who’s doing it right.

Is ‘cherry-picking’ the way to go?

As far as I’m aware, most review platforms that exist specifically for real estate allow agents to decide which reviews to display.

As a consumer, I hate cherry-picking. I fully understand why you would want to filter your reviews — but when I see a business or service with all five-star reviews and no two-star or one-star reviews, I always assume that either the outfit is too new to have done much business, or that there’s been some cherry-picking. (And I wonder what was excluded.)

If you’ve been in business for more than a few months and haven’t yet managed to anger any of your customers, then you are either not doing very much business overall (there are lots of unreasonable people out there — you truly haven’t encountered any?), or you have no real idea who’s been disappointed (or delighted) by your services.

I don’t trust the positive reviews for businesses that refuse to show negative ones.

And I’m not sure exactly how BrightLocal asked the question, but it looks to me like a growing number of consumers are agreeing with me, given the 4-percent decline in the number of people who say positive reviews make them trust a local business more and the increase in concern about “fake” reviews.

I’m more interested in negative reviews than positive ones, personally. They give me a lot more insight into what I might be buying than a brief but glowing “So-and-so was great!” — I want to know what the deficits are upfront.

And if there are zero negative reviews, I typically keep looking because I don’t feel I’ll have great insight into any problems I might encounter.

When negative reviews are positive

Let’s go back to that mattress as an example. Although most of the people on Amazon raved about it, there were some people who didn’t like it.

Here were some of the comments I remember them giving:

  • “This mattress is too soft.” (From a back sleeper — I sleep on my side.)
  • “It didn’t expand all the way.” (That could be a product flaw, or it could be user error.)
  • “I thought I would like memory foam, turns out I don’t.” (Hardly the fault of the mattress.)

I’ve bought other things online despite negative reviews — most recently a home inspection from a highly rated inspector who did a thorough job on my house, spending hours and sending a complete report with photos. (One person on the review site complained that he took too long.)

When I gave birth to my son, I looked at Yelp before deciding where to deliver the goods. The midwifery center I ended up choosing had a positive overall score, but being me, after I read a couple of “satisfieds,” I dove into the one-star and two-star reviews.

Out of all those negative reviews, the vast majority were from women who’d had to transfer out of the midwifery center during labor. (Laws vary from state to state, but in Colorado, any freestanding birthing center must be within a certain distance of a Level 1 Trauma Center hospital, and patients are required to pre-register at the hospital in case of transfer. Only the most uncomplicated pregnancies and healthiest women are “allowed” to have babies at the birthing center — for everyone’s safety.)

Those reviews had been written by people who were disappointed with their experience. How the midwifery center responded to those disappointments — with tact and care, while thoughtfully addressing any criticism with real “teeth” to it — helped me feel good about my choice.

Those reviews also meant that I paid close attention when we talked about the reasons why I might “risk out,” how payment would work if that happened and how my “care team” would deal with that situation.

And then there’s this not-insignificant fact: Most of the women who left a negative review didn’t actually deliver a baby at the midwifery center. To me, this feels a little bit like someone giving a wedding vendor a negative review because it rained on the wedding day. Whether those women risked out was completely beyond the control of the midwives attending them.

Assuming that consumers don’t notice these details in negative reviews and understand what they mean (or imply) is a pretty big disservice to consumers, in my opinion.

And seeing that the midwifery center seemed to understand and acknowledge where it was falling short made me feel better than a million satisfied mamas could have. Everyone has flaws. I want to work with people who know they have flaws and do the necessary work to find and improve those flaws.

When negative reviews help raise the bar

If there’s an agent in your market who’s lax with customer service, wouldn’t you want the consumers in your market to know so they can steer clear? And wouldn’t that information seem more reliable coming from another consumer?

When I couldn’t get a hold of anyone at “my” insurance company to cancel my auto policy last month, you’d better believe I went to Yelp and left a review. After eight to 10 phone calls at varying times of day failed to yield an actual human being, and after none of the voicemails I left were returned, I thought other people looking for an insurance agent might want to know that trying to rouse someone at this agency is equivalent to trying to raise the dead. And I just wanted to change a policy; I have no idea how they’d respond if I were in a car accident. (Luckily, I never had to find out.)

It’s probably pretty clear that I think negative reviews are as important as positive ones — maybe even more important.

And I think most consumers who use reviews to make informed purchasing decisions would agree with me.

Maybe it’s closer to a third, which is what BrightLocal’s survey seems to indicate — but remember: That number is growing.

Email Amber Taufen

Like me on Facebook! | Follow me on Twitter!

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