Online Business Reviews – Why They Matter, and Why They Don’t

For the past two decades, the internet has become an all-encompassing resource in just about every society in the world. We use it to do everything, from education to industry to entertainment. Nowadays, it’s common practice to use the web to perform research before undertaking any sort of venture, purchase, or transaction, whether it’s buying a car or buying movie tickets. Americans in particular have become highly dependent on online reviews in helping us to make informed decisions that will yield the best possible outcomes.

When reading reviews of a product or business, however, it doesn’t take long to find that there’s almost always at least one super-positive review and at least one super-negative review of the same item/business/person. But how can this be? The item being reviewed is either great or it’s not, right? Well, the problem is that, while our society seeks objective results to quantify the value of a given service, the results are almost always subjective to the reviewer and the surrounding circumstances. Thus, two people can receive the exact same service from the exact same business and have vastly differing perspectives of the outcome. These differing perspectives serve as “lenses” that in essence color each person’s respective view of the transaction.

We see this all the time in the legal community, and I’ll give you a simplified example. Person A gets in an automobile accident, suffers a broken left forearm, and incurs a total of $4,000.00 worth of medical treatment. She hires Attorney Albert to negotiate with the at-fault insurance company, and Attorney Albert ultimately obtains a settlement offer of $10,000.00. After attorney fees, costs, and medical bill/health insurance lien resolution, Person A would net about $4,000.00. Attorney Albert informs Person A that, in light of other similar settlements and jury awards in that particular community, this is a good settlement offer that is worth accepting, and Person A accepts it. Person A is thrilled that her claim is resolved and she now has $4,000 in her pocket.

In the meantime, Person B was in an identical automobile accident the following day in the exact same location as Person A. He also suffered a broken left forearm, and also incurred $4,000.00 in medical treatment. Person B hires the same attorney as Person A, who negotiates with (incidentally) the same insurance company and obtains a $10,000.00 settlement offer as well, which would likewise result in a net of $4,000.00 for Person B. Attorney Albert informs Person B that, in light of other similar settlements and jury awards in that particular community, this is a good settlement offer that is worth accepting. But unlike Person A, Person B is disgusted by what he considers “paltry” results, and is angry at Attorney Albert for not getting a higher settlement offer that’s on par with what Person B has seen on television and heard about in conversations at his favorite bar.

Given the similar fact patterns, why is there a difference in perception between Person A and Person B? Did Attorney Albert do a good job for Person A and a terrible job for Person B, in light of the identical results? The answer is something I’ll call the “X” factors, which are completely subjective to the individual and represent different things to different people. In the example above, let’s say the “X” factors for Person A included the fact that her father had been an attorney, and she greatly respected lawyers in general; she had a good relationship with and trusted Attorney Albert; she recognized that not every legal jurisdiction has the same historical jury results; and she felt like $4,000.00 would adequately compensate her for everything she went through because she understood that, while a broken arm is a terrible thing, it’s also not as serious an injury as it could have been.

In contrast, let’s say that the “X” factors for Person B included the fact that he distrusts lawyers because most of the attorneys he sees on tv are “shysters;” he grew up in urban California where big jury verdicts for injured persons are common; and he’s convinced that a local jury would award him a million dollars because (1) he’s a likeable guy and (2) the jury will want to punish the at-fault driver. Also, his buddy from a different state was in a car wreck last year, and he ended up with a settlement of over $100,000.00 (never mind that he broke multiple bones and was in a coma for a week).

Now, I recognize the “X” factors for Persons A and B above are stereotyped for simplicity’s sake. But, having worked on well over 200 personal injury cases, I can attest to the fact that Person A and Person B are not that uncommon in their differing perceptions of what constitutes a “fair” settlement. So what’s my point? Well, let’s continue the narrative.

Person A goes online and leaves a positive review for Attorney Albert, while Person B goes online and leaves a scathingly negative review for Albert. All things considered, the underlying facts of each case were the same; but the “X” factors of each client were dramatically different, and these “X” factors colored the respective lenses through which Person A and Person B viewed their case results. So if you are reviewing Attorney Albert’s online profile with the idea of possibly hiring him for your own car crash case, how do these two reviews help you make an informed decision as to whether you should hire Albert? The reality is, they don’t. But what if there are more than two reviews? For instance, what if there are thirty online reviews for Albert, and all but two are positive? What does this tell you about Albert as an attorney? And consequently, how does this overall positive rating help you put the negative views in proper context, even without being privy to all the “X” factors that went into the thirty different reviews?

My point is that you simply cannot judge a product, business, or service by an individual review, whether positive or negative. Law firms in particular are hard to judge based on internet reviews, since the law is highly adversarial and no attorney in the world can have complete control over the outcome of a given case. And don’t forget that anyonecan write an online review about a business or product, even if they’ve never used that business or product. In fact, our firm once had a negative review that (lo and behold!) was not written by a client, but by the opposing party who was furious that our client had won! Luckily the host website removed the negative review once we let them know the person was never our client. But not all review websites allow us to do this, and so there’s always the potential for us to have negative reviews from people who were either unreasonably unhappy with their case result, or who we may not have even represented to begin with. It’s even possible that an opposing attorney could leave a negative review for us under a fake name, simply to attempt to discredit us. Given the confidential nature of our business, we can’t always provide the full background of a given case (either to a host website or in a review response). We therefore end up stuck with whatever a person says about us online, even if we never represented them or had to discontinue our representation of them due to private reasons between us and the client.

So what does all this mean when you yourself are looking at submitting an online review for a business, product, or service? Well, first, you should probably try to keep emotion out of the review, to the extent possible. Emotion can limit your credibility in the eyes of the reader. For example, if you start your review by saying, “This doctor is a big fat meany and was so rude to me!,” your readers are not going to give your opinion much credence. If, however, you say something like, “I felt this doctor was not professional and did not provide adequate care [and here’s why]” and then include the specific details of the encounter that led you to that conclusion, you’ll not only appear more credible to your readers but you’ll also provide meaningful information that potential patients of the doctor can rely on.

Furthermore, anytime you’re unhappy with a product or service, you should first reach out to the business in question before leaving a nasty online review, especially since many reviews are non-removable. This applies not only to brick-and-mortar businesses like your local physical therapist’s office, but also to online retailers who sell products on eBay and Amazon. Venders and service providers generally want to do whatever they can to help a dissatisfied customer become satisfied. If you leave a negative review without giving them a chance to “make it right,” then you may have cheated yourself out of a better deal.

My final suggestion is that you should always be wary of an extremely negative (or extremely positive) review, especially when very little detail is shared about why the reviewer feels the way they do. Take each review with a grain of salt, and make sure to read as many reviews about the product or business that you can before making your decision to use or not use the product or business.

So in sum, online reviews are extremely helpful in choosing a product, a service, or even an attorney. But be careful to not put too much weight on a single review, whether positive or negative, since that person’s experience is specific to their situation and not to yours. And when leaving online reviews yourself, do so in a clear and specific manner that will help future readers (and if you’re tempted to leave a negative review, reach out to the business first to give them a chance to make it right, or at least clarify the reasoning behind your results).

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