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Amazon Sues Over Fake, Solicited Reviews; 5 Customer Experience Takeaways

Brian Cantor

Amazon is fighting back against fake, solicited product reviews. News broke last week that the e-tail giant is suing the more than 1,000 customers who allegedly agreed to write (or co-sign) positive reviews in exchange for a fee.

Such individuals were marketing their services via websites like Fiverr. They found buyers in brands that want to leverage the positive – albeit falsified – reviews to gain improved positioning and perception on the Amazon storefront.

In conjunction with the development, Call Center IQ reveals some relevant customer experience takeaways.

1) Reviews matter to customers: The very fact that a market exists for solicited reviews speaks to the importance customer feedback carries in today’s retail shopping experience. Thanks to the rise of the Internet, customers are no longer dependent on marketing copy, insincere salespeople, and limited instances of "in-person" word-of-mouth to make informed decisions. They can instantly access feedback and advice from hundreds, thousands, or even millions of actual customers. Buying has never been so informed!

Awareness of this new shopping normal is why savvy individuals are able to market their "review-writing" service. It is also why profit-hungry businesses are willing to indulge in such services.

Whereas "critics" are often assessing products from a technical, editorial perspective, legitimate customer feedback reflects the voice of those who are actually using the product in pursuit of its intended value. Relatable and relevant, that voice of the customer carries tremendous weight in today’s marketplace.

2) Reviews matter because they are credible: Currently in the market for wireless headphones, I stumbled upon a pair with the ideal price, technical specs and design.

I also noticed that the product’s average Amazon review was a strong 4.5/5. Considering there are some trolls who can never be appeased no matter how amazing the product, such a score is as good as one can reasonably expect. I was all but certain I found my next headphones!

To reach the point of certainty, I wanted to look through the content of the reviews. Why was the response so favorable?

My question was potentially answered when I stumbled upon this line in some of the reviews: "I received a significant discount in exchange for an unbiased review."

Here was a brand with a righteous approach to solicited reviews. It asked "contracted" customers to disclaim their relation to the brand. It asked "contracted" customers to offer an unbiased review. Yet I still found myself unable to trust the glowing feedback.

The goodwill associated with the product discount – and the fact that the reviews, no matter the intentions, were solicited – destroyed the credibility of the feedback. I perceived the review section as a marketing tool coopted by the brand rather than as an entirely impartial, objective source of feedback.

If an ethical approach to solicited reviews can have such an adverse impact on credibility, imagine the blow associate with unethical approaches. If I’m led to believe that a substantial portion of reviews are "bought" and do not stem from honest experiences with the product, I have no reason to take customer reviews seriously.

That lack of credibility serves to dampen the impact of legitimately positive reviews. It thus limits what could be a very lucrative word-of-mouth boost.

3) Customer-centricity is paramount. Thanks to online reviews (and other means of communicating their sentiment to potential buyers), today’s customers wield significant influence.

Appeasing such customers – both in terms of product quality and the surrounding experience – is consequently more essential than ever.

Customers won over represent tremendous brand ambassadors. Customers slighted represent bottlenecks on revenue and profit potential. If success is the aim, businesses must do everything they can to cultivate the former.

Reviews, interestingly, play an instrumental role in that process. By understanding how customers are truly responding to their products, businesses can make valuable changes and adjustments both behind and in front of the scenes.

They can internalize the feedback when addressing people, processes, products and technology. They can also demonstrate their commitment to the customer by honestly interacting with critics and visibly incorporating the negative comments into their product and service designs.

4) Today’s retailers must add value to the shopping experience. In addition to discussing the impact on customers, Amazon’s complaint notably declares that solicited reviews are "tarnishing Amazon’s brand for their own profit and the profit of a handful of dishonest sellers and manufacturers."

Customers who shop on Amazon do not simply receive access to a wide array of products, competitive prices and impressive shipping options – they also receive legitimate – and helpful – feedback from customers. Amazon does not position itself as a mere conduit between distributors and buyers; it is a tool that empowers customers to make more informed – and thus more successful – purchasing decisions.

Not simply a commentary on the importance of customer feedback, Amazon’s viewpoint is a commentary on the importance of adding value to the shopping experience.

Benefiting from the global, connected marketplace, today’s customers have access to a myriad of options when making nearly every purchase.

In most cases, to offer a particular product at a competitive price is to fit in rather than to stand out. Differentiating oneself from the infinite array of other brick-and-mortar and digital retailers requires a uniquely valuable experience. Retailers must devise and implement initiatives that make their shopping experiences superior to those of competitors. Why is purchasing a product from store A preferable to purchasing the same, equally priced product at store B?

5) The best brands take action. In pursuing this lawsuit – and thus publicizing its crackdown on fraudulent reviews – Amazon is demonstrating its aversion to complacency. It is illustrating its commitment to making things better.

That is the key to success in today’s age of the empowered customer. Amazon possesses ubiquity, but it is still recognizing legitimate weaknesses and responding with legitimate strength.

When approaching your own customer experience, do not take a broad, binary approach. Do not ask whether your customer experience generally suffices. Ask whether it lives up to its fullest potential – and delivers every bit of possible value in accordance with every potential promise made to customers.