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The Case of the Ethereal Yelpist

A mysterious string of bad online reviews doesn’t reflect reality for a sign company.

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DURING NEARLY THREE highly challenging years of business ownership, Arthur Kim of Everett Signs, just north of Seattle, barely had time to contemplate the reviews his company was receiving on Yelp. But over the past five weeks, he had spent considerable time — pondering the onslaught of negative comments and low ratings that had recently begun without reason.

A naturalized US citizen who had arrived in this country as a four-year-old child from Seoul with his parents and older sister, Arthur had grown up, been educated and started work in Seattle before moving to Everett, where he began with Everett Signs as a fabricator 11 years before, at age 22. When the owner decided to retire in the summer of 2019, Arthur used his savings and a loan to purchase the business.

Just as he felt he was settling in, the pandemic began with its well-documented disruptions and opportunities, which compelled Everett Signs to take on both new products and new employees. One such hire, Mark Cho, who was brought aboard about a year ago as many restrictions were being lifted, had just left the company after a contentious 10 months with the shop. Though well skilled in construction, Cho possessed an annoying trait: constantly knocking customer-submitted or approved designs that “should look better…” or that “only the customer will think is good.”

ABOUT REAL DEAL

Real Deal scenarios are inspired by true stories, but are changed to sharpen the dilemmas involved and should not be confused with real people or places. Responses are peer-sourced opinions and are NOT a substitute for professional legal advice. Please contact your attorney if you any questions about an employee or customer situation in your own business.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Created by ROLF L’MAO, Signs of the Times’ mascot. Email him at [email protected].

Sporadically, Arthur would tell Cho to keep his negative thoughts to himself and that his criticism of company output was harming morale. But because Cho showed up on time and generally did good work (if while complaining) — and, as with all sign companies, finding qualified people was next to impossible, Arthur kept Cho on.

Then Cho abruptly stopped showing up the previous week — no calls, texts, nothing. And for the shop, his timing could hardly have been worse. An all-hands install was scheduled for this week and Cho had been someone Arthur was counting on. Arthur had to ask his sister Jane to come up from Seattle for an extra set of hands he could really rely on.

On the day of the installation, Jane arrived at Everett Signs an hour early to catch up with Arthur. When she entered the shop, he was on his computer, sweating that morning’s latest bad Yelp review. “I don’t get it, Jane,” Arthur said. “No customer has ever called or emailed or refused to pay. And yet we have all these sh-tty reviews online that have to be turning prospects off…”

“Have you noticed any anti-Asian discrimination here?” Jane asked. “We’ve had some at home, not as bad as in other places.”

“Not that I can think of,” Arthur said. “Nothing I or anyone I know who lives here has experienced … fortunately.” After some thought, he added, “After the first three reviews, each of the others is from a separate account.”

“Let me see,” Jane replied. Arthur scrolled up and turned the screen toward her. After several minutes, Jane said, “It’s interesting that it started with three in two days, all related to poor design, but the others are more spread out, seven or eight days apart, over the last two months, and all about very different things.”

“I noticed that, too,” Arthur said. “Made me wonder about Mark Cho, who ghosted us last week. He used to complain about design, but not these other things. You think he might be behind them all, that he was trying to sabotage us but quit before I found out it was him?”

“I don’t know,” Jane answered. “From what you’ve described — no other customer complaints — and then this pattern, at first a tight cluster on his pet peeve but then spaced out, with each posted in a new and unique area…” Jane looked at Arthur and shook her head. “Doesn’t it seem, what’s the line? … ‘Desperately random, like the elaborations of a bad liar?’”

“Well, no matter who it is,” Arthur replied. “I’ve got to figure out what to do about these reviews.”

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The Big Questions

  • What can Arthur do to address the false attacks on Yelp?
  • Should he publicly respond, or send a direct message to the user(s)?
  • Can or should he report the negative comments and try to have them deleted?
  • What about the consequences in the eyes of potential customers for not addressing bad reviews?
Mark P.
Fairfax, VA

This is all too real. This was a “Real Deal” for us. No complaints, only good reviews. Then all of sudden we get the negative complaints — after we had to “let an employee go.” We contacted Yelp directly and explained the situation. They investigated the reviews and removed the false ones. I have no idea how they investigated it, but thankfully they cleaned it all up. I knew there was no way for me to prove who sent them, so thankfully Yelp [handled it]. They get a 5-star approval from me.

Linda B.
Fall River, MA

If it was a legitimate complaint he could respond to the review, apologize for whatever and offer to fix it — re-do whatever to show online viewers that his company stands behind their work and wants the customer to be satisfied. But since he can’t do this because the problems are made up, he should address that in a response online stating this is the work of a disgruntled [now former] employee and that his company prides itself on customer service and customer satisfaction … and then work with Yelp to have them taken down.

Shana G.
Austin, TX

Our company was dealing with harassment from a disgruntled neighbor. We realized that in addition to the verbal and social media harassment, they had also been posting fake Yelp reviews badmouthing our company. Technically, the only people who can review your business on Yelp are people who are actual customers, so we flagged the various fake reviews and reported them to Yelp and they were taken down. Even though the reviews you found were anonymous, you can still report them to Yelp and let them know that you suspect it’s a disgruntled former employee and that the statements do not match any customers you have worked with. Yelp takes their reputation as a reliable place for authentic reviews very seriously, so it’s very likely that they won’t allow the false reviews to stay up.

Tracey K.
El Cajon, CA

They should contact each submission separately and ask how they could improve and/or fix their issue. After reading/hearing from the responses, write a public response about trying to address each complaint. Do not blame the former employee publicly, even if you know for sure that’s who did it. If that is the case, present the information to Yelp to have the comments removed.

Don O.
Coquitlam, BC, Canada

They should have responded earlier to each one as they appeared! He should make a public statement that he suspects the posts are from a disgruntled employee. He now needs to respond to each one publicly, asking the poster to identify themselves so that the shop can correct any deficiencies. If any are real they need to be dealt with right away. Any that don’t respond he should approach Yelp and ask to have those posts removed.

Ricardo H.
Veracruz, Mexico

I think you should contact each of your clients and ask about the negative comments and see if they really were [from] them. If so, see how to correct them and leave them satisfied. If it wasn’t them, then you’ll know that it was the former employee, and take legal action for trying to harm your company and assets.

Ben P.

Seaford, DE

“Ahh, the digital age.”

Rose S.
Columbia

I would call the person out; tell them you want to talk to them directly. This will let you know if it is a “real” customer or not. Most customers are willing to talk out a compromise to make them happy. And a good manager is willing to compensate a customer to keep them happy. If you get no response, then consider it a fraud.

Mike S.
Glendale, AZ

Respond stating the truth. You don’t have a customer with that name or a job with that info. Maybe they have the shop confused. Then flag them as fake and let Yelp know it’s a former employee. Also offer to discuss with the reviewers but obviously [you] will never be responded to.

Susan L.
Singapore, Singapore

Confront the ghost online. Apologize and be accountable. Ask the customer for a job invoice and reference, which you can check back to the system and review the order with the team. Be transparent and let the customer know that Everett Signs will make-good on the job until the customer is satisfied. If this is a real order, people will know that the Everett store is credible and wants to make-good. If this is a ghost review, most people will know the difference too! : )

Stephen R.
North Charleston, SC

Reply to each negative comment with the truth. Too much defense will make you look guilty, so you need to word the responses carefully. This may or may not be who you think it is so avoid pointing fingers as well. Just ask for instance what issues there were and say if there is a problem with the sign it could possibly be rectified if you know what the problem is.

Dan S.
Long Beach, CA

I had a similar problem with Yelp reviews. I was getting 100% positive 5-star ratings and then I got some nonsensical negative reviews that I challenged with Yelp, and they took them down right away.

Jake Z.
Randolph, VT

In my experience most customers are not idiots. They are well aware that online reviews present, at best, a distorted view of the company, and at worst outright bulls**t as petty revenge against perceived slights, or just straight up bot postings. Serious customers know to ask around about a shop to see what people are actually willing to say in person about their experience with that shop, and customers that are not willing to do this simple due diligence step are most likely going to be more trouble than they are worth anyway.

David P.
Riverside, CA

First, I must say we don’t advertise on Yelp. They are the least effective medium we have used to gain business. Google AdWords is much better spend.
Second, the type of client that Yelp draws is the bargain shopper, low-end client looking for a deal… This in turn brings bad reviews.
Last, when hit with a bad review, I respond to the review immediately, apologizing to the client for their bad experience, then reiterate what we understood on our end, and how our perception of the incident went, without attaching the client, but apologizing, and asking them to come by so you can resolve the issue for them. It usually ends right there, and your other prospective clients usually can read through the … review complaint and get a better understanding of what is going on, as well as view your comment that says you will be happy to remedy the situation if you can.

Ben P.
Seaford, DE

Ahh the digital age. Full of pros and cons. Definitely makes it easier to do business. But also makes it way too easy to attack you anonymously with little recourse for you to respond and set the record straight. Being in the sign business for over 40 years, I don’t push for getting online reviews. Everyone tells me I am making a mistake [by] doing this. Because reviews like this are so easy to manipulate, I don’t put much faith in them. As this looks very much like the disgruntled ex-employee is doing this, I would contact them and confront them about it. Might not do any good but at least they would know my suspicions of them and maybe they would stop. Stuff like this makes me yearn for the simpler days. Bring back the fax machine!

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Rolf L'mao is Signs of the Times' mascot. Contact Rolf at [email protected]

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