The Hunger Games is a series of films/books about a consumer driven TV focussed society where people fight to the death in an arena controlled and manipulated by a shadowy organisation where they have little chance of success and there are frequent rule changes. Remove the arbitrary slaughter and Jennifer Lawrence and I think it has eerie parallels with the world of product rating on our favourite websites.
Now, we all live in a world where a rating drives your decision making. The broad idea is that a huge range of customers sharing their opinion and scores helps you to find the best product, the best service and generally forces suppliers to improve what they offer. You look at the reviews (usually out of 5) and then pick accordingly. In reality, what this means is that a bad score means disaster – an Uber driver with a score of 3.5 you assume has dogs in the car and swears whilst he smokes and a TripAdvisor rating of 3.5 is probably an unfinished flea ridden concrete box hotel beside a major motorway.
The trouble is, as with any game where the stakes are high, what starts as a even playing field immediately leads to everyone looking for an advantage through any means possible. Furthermore, in this case the referees have skin in the game. (i.e. Amazon also sells products, Trip Advisor = Expedia).
Accordingly, what started as an experiment in democratised opinion sharing has morphed into a life or death fight for a rating number which doesn’t always get it right and might cost your existence. Here are three companies I volunteer as tribute (Hunger Games reference) to prove my point.
The begging and pleading of a small toy company – imagine you launch a product tomorrow and put it on Amazon. One of your first orders comes in and the customer (an unreasonable man desiring a Christmas present for a one year old) is unhappy that the product isn’t delivered in the promised time. A follow up request for a rating is met with a zero star rating (the man didn’t get the product yet). The score for the product drops to 2 stars and the product is never bought again ever by everyone. What lunatic buys a two star??
The unprincipled monster in this story is me and my rating was met with the following response (paraphrased loosely).
Dear complete bastard, I am a small company and I have 12 children to feed none of which will be able to wear shoes in the harsh winter due your rating destroying my credibility and in course my livelihood. Please reconsider changing your rating and I will light a candle in your name every Christmas. Here is the link on ______ to change your rating. God bless us everyone.
I received the product, changed the rating to 4 (how could I not). Company is saved. Shoes for everyone.
I’m only exaggerating a little in the above . There is an incredible power of a rating which has led to the rise of a new type of strange personalisation in service. People will actively chase the rating in preference to anything else – e.g. ‘I don’t have my product’ is not seen as urgent until it translates to zero stars. Honourable mentions in this category for Dominos delivery ratings (the manager has to personally phone you if you rate them a poor score) and just about all Uber drivers. (who also know where you live).
The ‘Featured Rating’ con-trick – trendy mattress company – I recently bought a mattress online for which one of the selling points was commentary on the ‘excellent unboxing experience!?’. The mattress was delivered within 24hrs 2 days before Christmas (in a box, there was no lie) and having taken advantage of the 100 day sleep guarantee, we sent it back because the chemical smell after 3 weeks remained overpowering (as a separate point, if you look at the small print, most mattress companies suggest you air your mattress outside for a day or two before you put it in your house. This does make you wonder what’s in it and what liability they are trying to avoid). Nonetheless, the mattress was taken away quickly no questions asked and a very nice follow-up email was sent thanking us for giving them the chance.
My feedback; 5/5 for service, 1/5 for the product, 3/5 for the ‘unboxing experience’. A few lines saying something similar to the above also went up. A few days later, a line of my feedback went up on their site. ‘amazing customer service and delivery especially just before Christmas…….’ On closer investigation, if you look at the website rating, what you are shown on the first page is their ‘featured ratings’ which are all 5 stars and glowing. In order to see the other ratings, you have to physically click on the stars you want e.g. my 2 star one to see the full version.
We are used to seeing the ratings in chronological order but increasingly, you can see selected comments appearing at the top, Youtube in particular. You can assume it’s not long before you see these monetised. E.g. to pin 5 ratings of your choice at the top, give us $5 a month or even more interestingly, give a $5 to remove a rating. It’s already happening on TripAdvisor.
The ‘feedback is important to us’ squeeze – given the power of the rating, no-one wants a bad score so when the possibility of a good score appears, people will jump on it quickly. The best example is to take a cruise and enter into a world of the American feedback hunters.
Over the years, incentives and rewards have moved away from sales onto service. The complaints over mis-selling in Financial Services or over-zealous salesmen (it’s always men in my experience) have changed the dynamic of salespeople. However, there are obvious rewards for good service built into remuneration so you get the following decision tree; I tried this out in the most service intensive place I’ve ever been; a cruise boat on the Mediterranean.
‘It has been my pleasure to serve you on the boat this week’ – RESPONSE – thank you so much, you’ve been great – FOLLOW UP – ‘feedback is important to us – here is a form that I’d love you to fill in about my performance this week.
‘It has been my pleasure to serve you on the boat this week’ – RESPONSE – yeah, it was fine – FOLLOW UP – ‘please enjoy the rest of your day and safe journey home’
Even more fascinating was the feedback form when we got home. One of the questions asked ‘did our staff ask you directly for positive feedback’. This is clearly an issue that they know about but I could still answer ‘no’. There is an investment in getting the good ratings which means feedback is skewed away from bad to good. You can see this in the general ratings people give, a 3.0 rating is catastrophic and even a 4.0 is starting to feel a bit low.
What does it all mean?
It is now as it has ever been, companies are smart in their marketing and approach to take account of how customers make decisions about their products. What has changed is the platforms behind managing the ratings and the anonymity of response meaning that you will take advice from people you don’t know, will never meet and no doubt have different lives and personalities. The companies themselves are also driving what you respond to and therefore what is considered important. For example, someone has decided the ‘unboxing experience’ is an important to the overall rating as the product itself, a 10 year mattress purchase vs the first 20 seconds. Companies act accordingly.
If you are a consumer, you need to be increasingly wary of looking at scores and look at what comes behind it. You have to run your own analytics strategy to build your own sense of what is good or bad. My approach is to trust no-one who gives a 1 or a 5 and spend my time looking at 3s to look for trends. If you are a retailer/supplier, you need strategies to play the system and position yourself in the best way. As with anything, you need adapt your behaviour to focus on what is being measured. This might mean pushing on personalised service or keeping a much closer eye on the immediate stage after the sale and to get the timing for the feedback right.
I recently moved countries and had some removal guys round to pack up our furniture. The feedback form was handed to me whilst the three huge guys were stood behind me and every item of glassware and anything fragile still to be taken to the truck.
My feedback – glowing. My furniture – still on a boat in the Indian ocean.
PS I’ll leave you with the best rating piece of gamesmanship I’ve seen. Have a look at this and tell me what rating the Guardian gave the film.