Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Card-Carrying Reviewers? Yelp!

Brad Newman thinks that online reviewers don't get enough respect. So he came up with a card that a reviewer can flash at rude waiters or uppity maitre'ds for near instant R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Of course, not everybody can get a shiny black ReviewerCard. Prospective cardholders will be screened for eligibility. For one, a cardholder must have written lots of reviews.

The idea came to Newman in France when he was brushed off by a waiter when he asked for green tea instead of normal tea during breakfast. When Newman hinted that this would mean a negative review on TripAdvisor, the manager of the place paid for his breakfast.

A thought hit him like Mjölnir from above. "Why can't waiters, hotel workers, concierges know that people are reviewers? If that French waiter had known at the beginning that I write a lot of reviews, he'd have treated me like Brad Pitt." I don't know whether he got his green tea, though.

Newman also cited a time when he got a hotel room in Geneva for about half price a night after waving his little black card. He doesn't call it what some people might see it as: extortion. "I see it as letting the restaurant know that they should treat me good because I'm going to be writing a review."

Unless you're Jay Rayner, A A Gill, Pete Wells, or some motormouth from Ipoh, I don't feel like paying attention to anything you say. Nor do I think anything you have to say matters all that much. However, this is the Internet we're talking about.

I've read some of the 'reviews' on sites such as Yelp. I've also read some of the horror stories about 'reviews' and 'reviewers' from sites such as Yelp. So I can say that giving this kind of people something like the ReviewerCard is akin to arming them with AR-15s. Both require a certain degree of faith in the integrity, maturity and intelligence of those entrusted with such power - faith that is at times misplaced.

Even before the Internet, complaints tend to travel faster than praise. Thanks to feedback sites such as Yelp, grouses gained warp drives. Some groups of Yelpers have begun acquiring an unsavoury reputation for shaking down restaurants and being free with lone-star rants. Thus, the means to help players in the hotel and food businesses improve via crowdsourced feedback is slowly becoming an instrument of terror where F&B players are concerned.

Which is why anything that empowers hordes of uninformed freeloaders and discount whores in this manner is just many kinds of wrong.

There are reasons why all these 'reviewers' are online and not in, say, The New York Times or The Observer. How much to they know about the businesses they're writing about and the cultures of where they're based? Do they know what is and is not available at the establishments being reviewed? Are they magnanimous enough to allow for days when the floor staff or kitchen staff may be having a bad day?

Do they really care about their readers, or is it just about the power trip from all the freebies and bragging rights?

Newman got miffed because the French waiter turned up his nose at his request for green tea. If this gentleman is correct, French waiters are known to be rude or snobbish. And does this establishment have any green tea to serve? Did his sense of entitlement just so happened to kick in at a particularly busy time in that place?

We don't know. But it's what he doesn't say in the LA Times article that rings louder in my head.

For whatever reason they're written, reviews are essentially a kind of service, and sites that collect these are supposed to help consumers with their decisions. If written well, reviews can be entertaining as well as informative and, most of all, reliable, as it describes a normal situation at an establishment that people are more likely to encounter.

When you declare your reviewer status at the table, you are never going to get that.

One can argue that food critics with a face also get preferential treatment, but that's because (one hopes) they earned it and, writing for a news agency and all, they're also bound by a journalist's code of conduct. Also, because there's the impression that food critics are relatively more stable and reliable than Yelpers.

"The food critic is definitely a reference because Yelp is basically full of people complaining," said chef Eric Ripert of the famed New York restaurant Le Bernardin. "We have to take into consideration some of the comments, but very often it's not even rational what they say."

The rise of what I call 'raviews' - overly glowing praise that is bought, faked or written in exchange for freebies or discounts - and the growing number of 'reviews' that are nothing more than complaints are bringing into question the helpfulness of crowdsourced customer feedback. Though Yelp and others have tried to rein in the insanity, the struggle seems to be an uphill one.

The F&B business is already fraught with pitfalls: competition, staff and customer turnover, logistics, and red tape. The nature of the business means that good restaurants and hotels generally prosper, while the bad ones will fold under the weight of their own screw-ups. The drive-by review business is changing things, but is it for the better or the worse? We don't know yet.

But the last thing it - and the rest of us - needs is a bunch of whiny entitled know-nothings waving cards that says, "I'm a reviewer. Treat me right - or else."

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