Last weekend, an article in one of my industry’s trade magazines caught my eye. It said that spurious reviews on rating websites were costing plumbers millions of pounds. Be those numbers true or not, rating websites are a 21st century problem that affects every public-facing business in the world.
Since I founded Pimlico Plumbers in 1979, with an old van and a lot of enthusiasm, some things haven’t changed. People still want a reliable, top quality service with transparent pricing. What has changed though is that, once upon a time, reputation was based on word of mouth. Today, any view honestly held or otherwise can be shared via the internet with thousands of people in an instant.
Now, any business, no matter how good they are at what they do, and how hard they work at doing their best, will from time to time have the odd disgruntled or disappointed customer. But what businesses are facing on an ever-more common basis is the disease of malicious comments or targeted negative posting campaigns.
Some posts are, of course, genuine and can provide a useful warning against "Fawlty Towers"-style hotels and cowboy builders. Online reviews started as a platform to share experiences and recommend places for a holiday, a good night out or reliable tradesman.
Unfortunately they have become a vacuum for anonymous posters keen to vent their spleens. Once up, a negative review is hard to remove. Something that was posted in the heat of the moment years ago, which may be dubious or downright malicious, can be read by a potential customer at the press of a button.
Quite honestly, this is the modern day equivalent of cutting off the hand of a convicted thief. To begin with, the thief may have been wrongly accused. If he did transgress, surely the fact that he may have turned his life around means he shouldn’t be penalised forever?
I know there are people out there who specialise in removing unfair criticisms from the internet, but I'm also aware of how difficult it is to get to sites which are hosted abroad, and don't necessarily abide by our laws.
What I believe needs to be done is that those who go online and make allegations must provide real names and addresses, and so be made to stand personally and publically behind their often libellous allegations.
I am not calling for the abolition of these sites, just that they operate with the level of transparency that businesses like mine have to.