"Your review on Yelp is destroying my business," he says to me, clearly clenching his teeth, "How long do I have to suffer because of your negative review?" A few weeks ago, I got a phone call from a contractor because of a review I'd left. What ensued was a weirdly emotional conversation that ventured between harassment and a plea for empathy.
I've only written a couple of Yelp reviews in my life. Like many people, it was a negative experience that triggered it, because I felt like I had to do something. In this case, it was a botched home remodel job at my significant other's house. It wasn't a huge job, but it was expensive, and I felt like I had to warn others away from this contractor. Don't get me wrong, I don't take this stuff lightly. I've had retail, restaurant, and blue collar jobs in my life, and I know that most complaints on Yelp are garbage from people who just don't get it. But I also know that finding a home contractor is difficult, and the least I can do when I find one truly bad is say, "hey, don't use these people."
The review itself was what you'd expect from a negative review of a contractor. They took forever to get the job done, showed up late, left a mess, were unprofessional, and misrepresented the quality of their work in a variety of ways. It's the same contractor-gone-wrong story you've heard before. The review wasn't even vitriolic, it was mostly a play-by-play because the events spoke for themselves.
Things got interesting when, three months later, the owner called. It started with subtle threats, then moved into potential bribes. It was as weird as it sounds.
After one bad review, the bullying started…
Initially, the business owner called and left a message, mentioning that he'd talked with his lawyer about the review. In retrospect, I know this was a simple bullying tactic meant to scare me into deleting the review.
The initial voicemail went like this: "I spoke with my lawyer about this review and I need to speak with you immediately." When someone mentions speaking to a lawyer, well, the first thing you do is speak to your own (or bluff, like I did). When I returned the call, my first question was, "I've spoken with my lawyer, do I need to get him on the line?"
"No, no, of course not" he replied, continuing, "I meant my lawyer suggested I call you so we can work something out."
Of course, I don't have a personal lawyer. But my guess is he was initially suggesting defamation, which I have a pretty good understanding of at this point. Yelp's been loud about its support for consumer's rights when it comes to defamation, and it took just a few seconds of Googling to confirm the law here. A quick call to a lawyer friend cleared up any remaining questions I had: as long as I wasn't lying in the review, the owner had no cause to file a suit against me.
Many people won't know the ins and outs of defamation, nor will they go through the trouble of searching for the information when they're threatened by a business owner. My guess is the mere mention of a lawyer is enough to get most people to remove their negative reviews. I called his bluff, so the business owner took a different tactic.
…then came the pleading…
After it was clear I understood my legal protections, and I understood exactly what defamation means, he moved onto another tactic: pleading with me. Because I'm not a terrible person, this almost worked.
"This is a family business," he said, "I have children." He moved on to an appeal to my empathy, "how long must I suffer?" he asked. I'll admit I contemplated this for a while. Was there some universal time period a contractor must suffer before retribution? Is that even a quantifiable thing?
"How much business do you think I've lost because of your negative review?" he continued, inflating my ego a bit now, he paused and waited for my reply, "I have no idea," I said, leaving it at that. The phone line remained dead for a bit as we both tried to figure out what the game was at this point. He thought the ball was in my court now. I was too stunned at this guy's audacity to reply, and decided to remain silent until he spoke again. When he did, he moved onto another tactic.
…and finally the bribes
Next up was the bribe. He offered a number of services from his company to "make things right," which I scoffed at considering they couldn't do the initial job correctly. Then, in a truly left field approach, he moved on to restaurant gift cards. This wasn't a $20 gift card to Chili's, either. He tossed around a number of fancy restaurants far too classy for me, with his final pitch being a $500 card for Patina.
It was clear he was willing to pay just about whatever it took for me to remove the review. I let him go on for a little bit in stunned silence before he asked, "Thorin, is there anything I can do to make this right?" I thought about it before replying, "I don't want anything from you, but I'll think about removing it." I'd be lying if I didn't consider any of these offers. The free work was a bit of a joke, but who doesn't want a fancy meal? But it all felt too weird. It was a pay off, and the idea just didn't sit well with me.
More than anything though, I just wanted the conversation to end. At this point, I was uncomfortable with the whole thing. I'd gone through a variety of emotions over the course of a five minute conversation. I started with a holier than thou, consumer-advocating attitude, but I ended in state of complete confusion. I wasn't sure what I wanted out of all this, but I knew I wanted to hang up the phone.
Bottom Line: Yelp Isn't Worth It
Digging through the other reviews of this contractor, I've found plenty of stories like mine. Other reviews describe identical situations, where the contractor did shoddy work, then months later the owner contacted the reviewer with a little bullying before moving on to bribery. Many of those reviews were published close to or after mine.
It's no secret that Yelp makes running a business harder. The Wall Street Journal points out that business owners often see a dip in profits after a slew of negative reviews, and the fact you can be anonymous on Yelp means it's possible for competitors to leave as many fake negative reviews as they want. It's also possible for a business to pay someone to write fake good Yelp reviews to boost their scores. Business owners have also accused Yelp of extortion, claiming Yelp moves positive reviews to the top after a business pays to advertise. For its part, Yelp routinely denies these claims.
Business owners seem unsure of how to handle Yelp. I've had plenty of other weird interactions where a business owner asked me to leave (or offered discounts to not leave) Yelp reviews. I've heard similar stories from others, too. A tire shop recently fixed a hole in a friend's tire for "free," but the business owner asked for a Yelp review in return. That sounds nice on the surface, but it's an odd business practice when you think about it. For that company, the $5 charge to fix that hole is worthless compared to a favorable Yelp review. After looking at their page, it was clear the tire shop had some bad reviews for bigger jobs. This goodwill repair was less to increase the chance for return business and more to push Yelp stars back in their favor.
By the way, review solicitation isn't recommended by Yelp. For bad reviews, Yelp offers a way for business owners to reply, but suggests that owners stick to the "customer is always right" principle, and to be diplomatic.
It's not just businesses trying to figure things out here. Beyond all this, I'll admit my negative review was a last ditch effort. It was my sad revenge as a consumer who felt duped. I might have felt altruistic when I pressed that publish button, but it was a selfish decision meant only to make myself feel a little better. It was a form of venting. A one-star review on Yelp is more often a pleading rant than it is a useful review. I could have continued calling the contractor every day until they sorted it all out. Or I could have poured myself a glass of whiskey, opened up my web browser, and given them a piece of my mind where other people would see.
In the end, I deleted my Yelp account, that review included. I did it quickly, in a state of frustration and exhaustion after the company contacted me again, but thankfully this particular contractor is swimming in negative reviews.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.