Almost every day we have an interaction with the hospitality industry, whether that is grabbing a coffee on the way to work, customising a lunchtime salad or eating out with friends in the evening. Where we go may be due to convenience or habit but often it comes down to reviews. How often do you try a new establishment without googling it first?
However, whereas once these reviews were carefully crafted by professional critics with a carefully honed palate and years of experience, any person with a smartphone can now unleash their opinions across the internet. Does the democratisation of restaurant reviews make them more accessible or less trustworthy?
Can you cheat the system?
A venue cannot opt out of TripAdvisor because even if the owner is not registered a person can leave a review. Properties are only removed if the business has closed down. So this online reviewing experience is pertinent to everyone who owns a hospitality establishment. That said, Oobah Butler turned this idea on its head by creating an establishment that never existed- The Shed in Dulwich. With only a website and a TripAdvisor account (not even an address was mentioned), The Shed at Dulwich found itself at the top of TripAdvisor’s list of London restaurants for two weeks. An achievement that celebrity chefs fight tooth and nail for was achieved with some clever photography and a few fake reviews.
How does this affect restaurants?
In the days of the professional restaurant critic, the fate of an establishment was held in the balance by one person. They could be wined, dined and impressed and this event would come round but rarely. Now with every customer having the platform for their displeasure at their fingertips, every interaction counts. Though conceptually this should raise the quality of every customer experience, some restaurants are finding themselves held hostage to the whims of even the most pernickety diner.
Slights both real and imaginary often find a restaurant penalised on TripAdvisor from people feeling they were not paid enough attention or complaining of strange smells putting them off their food. Some restaurants are hitting back and fighting fire with fire. Though only 1 in 4 reviews are responded to on TripAdvisor, 78% of respondents agreed that seeing a management response to a review ‘makes me believe the establishment cares about its guests’.
While this divides restaurants on their official response to negative online reviews, for those who do respond, a professional manner is often the most successful. While some restaurants have accused reviewers of lying, others have threatened legal action, but successful responses have explained their take on the situation or calmly given the alternate side of the story.
Where does this leave customers?
TripAdvisor is heavily relied upon by customers visiting a new city or just looking for some inspiration. If this information is not always correct it can leave guests with doubts. Though it may not stop people going out and enjoying themselves, negative reviews do put off customers and too many negative reviews will see a restaurant ranking drop in its area.
Of course word of mouth can never be replaced, and often people will take personal recommendations with more weight than an anonymous internet source, however with so much footfall coming through internet presence, (especially with people who are not from the local area) it is in no one’s interest to alienate customers.
TripAdvisor also breeds a habit of complaining with anonymity on your side. This removes the organic conversation between establishment and guest that often leads to improvements in customer experience, instead it casts a pall on communication that is had over the online platform. Perhaps it is time to insist on real names being used. This could of course be abused, but it would make a start in having a more grown-up interaction.