Yelp Is Awful For Everyone Involved

"Your review on Yelp is destroying my business," he says to me, clearly clenching his teeth, "How long do I have to suffer because of your negative review?" A few weeks ago, I got a phone call from a contractor because of a review I'd left. What ensued was a weirdly emotional conversation that ventured between harassment and a plea for empathy. Illustration by Sam Woolley.

I've only written a couple of Yelp reviews in my life. Like many people, it was a negative experience that triggered it, because I felt like I had to do something. In this case, it was a botched home remodel job at my significant other's house. It wasn't a huge job, but it was expensive, and I felt like I had to warn others away from this contractor. Don't get me wrong, I don't take this stuff lightly. I've had retail, restaurant and blue collar jobs in my life, and I know that most complaints on Yelp are garbage from people who just don't get it. But I also know that finding a home contractor is difficult, and the least I can do when I find one truly bad is say, "hey, don't use these people."

The review itself was what you'd expect from a negative review of a contractor. They took forever to get the job done, showed up late, left a mess, were unprofessional and misrepresented the quality of their work in a variety of ways. It's the same contractor-gone-wrong story you've heard before. The review wasn't even vitriolic, it was mostly a play-by-play because the events spoke for themselves.

Things got interesting when, three months later, the owner called. It started with subtle threats, then moved into potential bribes. It was as weird as it sounds.

After one bad review, the bullying started...

Initially, the business owner called and left a message, mentioning that he'd talked with his lawyer about the review. In retrospect, I know this was a simple bullying tactic meant to scare me into deleting the review.

The initial voicemail went like this: "I spoke with my lawyer about this review and I need to speak with you immediately." When someone mentions speaking to a lawyer, well, the first thing you do is speak to your own (or bluff, like I did). When I returned the call, my first question was, "I've spoken with my lawyer, do I need to get him on the line?"

"No, no, of course not," he replied, continuing, "I meant my lawyer suggested I call you so we can work something out."

Of course, I don't have a personal lawyer. But my guess is he was initially suggesting defamation, which I have a pretty good understanding of at this point. Yelp's been loud about its support for consumer's rights when it comes to defamation, and it took just a few seconds of Googling to confirm the law here. A quick call to a lawyer friend cleared up any remaining questions I had: as long as I wasn't lying in the review, the owner had no cause to file a suit against me.

Many people won't know the ins and outs of defamation, nor will they go through the trouble of searching for the information when they're threatened by a business owner. My guess is the mere mention of a lawyer is enough to get most people to remove their negative reviews. I called his bluff, so the business owner took a different tactic.

...then came the pleading...

After it was clear I understood my legal protections, and I understood exactly what defamation means, he moved onto another tactic: pleading with me. Because I'm not a terrible person, this almost worked.

"This is a family business," he said, "I have children." He moved on to an appeal to my empathy. "How long must I suffer?" he asked. I'll admit I contemplated this for a while. Was there some universal time period a contractor must suffer before retribution? Is that even a quantifiable thing?

"How much business do you think I've lost because of your negative review?" he continued, inflating my ego a bit now, he paused and waited for my reply. "I have no idea," I said, leaving it at that. The phone line remained dead for a bit as we both tried to figure out what the game was at this point. He thought the ball was in my court now. I was too stunned at this guy's audacity to reply, and decided to remain silent until he spoke again. When he did, he moved onto another tactic.

...and finally the bribes

Next up was the bribe. He offered a number of services from his company to "make things right", which I scoffed at considering they couldn't do the initial job correctly. Then, in a truly left field approach, he moved on to restaurant gift cards. This wasn't a $20 gift card to Hog's Breath Cafe, either. He tossed around a number of fancy restaurants far too classy for me, with his final pitch being a $US500 ($689) card for Patina, an elite French restaurant.

It was clear he was willing to pay just about whatever it took for me to remove the review. I let him go on for a little bit in stunned silence before he asked, "Thorin, is there anything I can do to make this right?" I thought about it before replying, "I don't want anything from you, but I'll think about removing it." I'd be lying if I didn't consider any of these offers. The free work was a bit of a joke, but who doesn't want a fancy meal? But it all felt too weird. It was a pay off, and the idea just didn't sit well with me.

More than anything though, I just wanted the conversation to end. At this point, I was uncomfortable with the whole thing. I'd gone through a variety of emotions over the course of a five minute conversation. I started with a holier than thou, consumer-advocating attitude, but I ended in state of complete confusion. I wasn't sure what I wanted out of all this, but I knew I wanted to hang up the phone.

Bottom Line: Yelp Isn't Worth It

Digging through the other reviews of this contractor, I've found plenty of stories like mine. Other reviews describe identical situations, where the contractor did shoddy work, then months later the owner contacted the reviewer with a little bullying before moving on to bribery. Many of those reviews were published close to or after mine.

It's no secret that Yelp makes running a business harder. The Wall Street Journal points out that business owners often see a dip in profits after a slew of negative reviews, and the fact you can be anonymous on Yelp means it's possible for competitors to leave as many fake negative reviews as they want. It's also possible for a business to pay someone to write fake good Yelp reviews to boost their scores. Business owners have also accused Yelp of extortion, claiming Yelp moves positive reviews to the top after a business pays to advertise. For its part, Yelp routinely denies these claims.

Business owners seem unsure of how to handle Yelp. I've had plenty of other weird interactions where a business owner asked me to leave (or offered discounts to not leave) Yelp reviews. I've heard similar stories from others, too. A tyre shop recently fixed a hole in a friend's tyre for "free", but the business owner asked for a Yelp review in return. That sounds nice on the surface, but it's an odd business practice when you think about it. For that company, the $7 charge to fix that hole is worthless compared to a favourable Yelp review. After looking at their page, it was clear the tyre shop had some bad reviews for bigger jobs. This goodwill repair was less to increase the chance for return business and more to push Yelp stars back in their favour.

By the way, review solicitation isn't recommended by Yelp. For bad reviews, Yelp offers a way for business owners to reply, but suggests that owners stick to the "customer is always right" principle, and to be diplomatic.

It's not just businesses trying to figure things out here. Beyond all this, I'll admit my negative review was a last ditch effort. It was my sad revenge as a consumer who felt duped. I might have felt altruistic when I pressed that publish button, but it was a selfish decision meant only to make myself feel a little better. It was a form of venting. A one-star review on Yelp is more often a pleading rant than it is a useful review. I could have continued calling the contractor every day until they sorted it all out. Or I could have poured myself a glass of whiskey, opened up my web browser and given them a piece of my mind where other people would see.

In the end, I deleted my Yelp account, that review included. I did it quickly, in a state of frustration and exhaustion after the company contacted me again, but thankfully this particular contractor is swimming in negative reviews.


Comments

    But you did the right thing. You can't wear the weight of all the dodgy stuff that happens on Yelp. This bloke has a family, but so do all the other contractors trying to get a foot in the door who will do a good job. Engaging a contractor is a big effort. By helping others make the choice you've done many more people a service. Misrepresentation is a huge issue. On the other hand, a genuine negative review is a wonderful thing. The business has one legitimate recourse - do a good job next time.

      At the end of the day, you should have researched who it was that you had do your renovation. It's very easy to submit a negative review for things you thought were inept, when the very problem perhaps lies with you..Some advice....You get what you pay for. So if you chose to cut costs and or corners, don't be a whinging whiny bitch about it. Woo woo, you hear that! It's your review kicking you in the assignment, such it!

    Why didn't you just talk to the contractor about what they did wrong and why. Like what about the review is untrue? Did you not show up late? why was that? what about the quality of work? do you really think I got what I paid for? Did you underquote to get my business? How about if you actually fix those things I will add on to the review that we had a talk and that you agreed to address some of the issues.

    Otherwise, at the end of the day, this guy will continue to mislead customers and cut corners and not actually improve. It's a bit of a two way street and yes it sucks but it can be worth the effort if you help the guy help himself. If he's not interested then there's no point deleting the review because it's what happened and people need to pick someone else.

    That being said, Yelp is dodgy but it's what people use. Have to try and work within the system sometimes.

    You are part of the problem of the review systems. Like you mentioned yourself, you only write negative reviews on Yelp, like most people. It's very rare that people are compelled to write a positive review for a completed job unless they completely exceed your expectations, which admittedly is almost never. Most jobs are done as they are supposed to be done, nothing more.

    If most people only write negative reviews, is it really an accurate representation of the businesses involved?

      From the fact that he mentioned there were more reviews exactly like his? I'd say so. If someone hasn't been motivated to leave a complaint, that's compliment enough. If the contractor is shit-house, people need to be warned.

        "If someone hasn't been motivated to leave a complaint, that's compliment enough"

        So let's say, out of 100 customers, 95 were satisfied and they didn't leave a review. 5 people weren't happy, and they leave 5 bad reviews. This guy gets 5 negative reviews and no positives. Now he has 5/5 negative reviews.

        That sounds like a great system and a true representation of the business.

          "Oh no, this guy has five bad reviews! I'll go shop around then! Oh. Huh. Everyone else I've looked at has thirty bad reviews. Five bad review guy might not be so bad then."

          Like I said before. If someone hasn't been motivated enough to leave a complaint, that's compliment enough.

          It's important to be warned about bad experiences. Anyone shopping around is going to be able to see, "Yeah, a bit pricey for what got done," is worlds of difference from, "Have a listen to this multiple-month, industry-ombudsman-involving horrors story."

          The system works.

    Ahh, the old "I am contacting my lawyer" routine. The first port of call for the incompetent bully. Then the cries of "I have a family!" Were you thinking of how your shitty work could come back to bite you and negatively impact your family? Probably not. You were thinking "Ha. I can con this sucker."

    Doing a good job can be done for entirely selfish reasons: repeat work and positive work-of-mouth. Even in this era, a recommendation from a trusted friend or family member is worth more than all of the Googling in the world. I have a small pile of business cards from various tradespeople who I trust and can confidently recommend. I have sent thousands of dollars of work their way because I was happy with their professionalism and quality.

    I'd have left it up until you stopped seeing people leaving their own.

    "Are the things I wrote still true for how you work?"
    You'll never get an honest answer out of that, of course. But that's the thing the contractor needs to examine.

    If they have to feed their kids, maybe they should work in a role that they can actually do competently, that doesn't scam people out of their own hard-earned.

    Last edited 03/06/16 11:06 am

    One of the biggest problems with all sites like Yelp, people never give the Business a chance to make amends, we're all Human and sometimes as Humans we make mistakes for whatever reason. How would you feel at work, doing whatever it is you're doing, if you made a mistake or did something that wasn't to a persons liking and instead of them contacting you and trying to work it out they just decided to go around telling everyone how bad you are based on just that?

    Restaurants especially get a raw deal, sometimes meals come out not done correctly, people are in a rush and no one notices till the customer gets the meal and tries it, they never say a thing at the time, they eat it, pay, walk away and stew for a little while then leave a bad review when they simply could have pointed it out and had it easily fixed. Sometimes it's a misunderstanding that gets blamed on the Business.

    I recently told off a Co-Worker who left a bad review of a Hotel we were staying at because there was an odd smell, he immediately felt bad about it and then, almost straight away after we were talking, the Hotel contacted him to discuss the review and see what could be done. He realised what I said was right, if he had simply told them about it, it would have been fixed right away with very little fuss and everyone would have been happy.

    Don't let a "Review" be your first port of call, if there is a problem, talk to the business and see if you can get it rectified first, give them a chance to improve and live up to your standards instead of taking the road of Self Satisfaction.

      Yeah, I've worked in the hospitality industry and have a few friends still in it, and I can tell you that complaining about your food and actually eating what they bring out as a replacement? Bad idea. Because they will rarely actually accept that they are the ones who fucked up, they'll resent the complaint.

      But for other things where someone isn't likely to spit or worse in your food, yeah. Contact should be the first option.

      Thing is... that's confrontation. And who likes confrontation?

        In the 9 years and many different Restaurants I worked at I never once actually saw or knew of anyone spitting in a customers food for any reason, it's honestly the most disgusting and juvenile thing I can think of and is the first resort of the inept and stupid, I've always assumed this sort of thing is more the realm of Fast Food Restaurants (Which I haven't worked in) rather than a more traditional Restaurant. There are far more clever ways of getting even with annoying customers.

        And I would suggest people don't view it as confrontation, it's only confrontation if you decide to be a total dick about it. Just realise that you're dealing with Human Beings and as fellow Human Beings they will from time to time make mistakes and any decent Restaurant will do their best to satisfy their customers and improve or retain their reputation.

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