A Yelp in the Wilderness

I answered the phone at work the other day, and a guy from Yelp was on the line.

He gave off sort of a greasy vibe, if you know what I mean. When I answered the phone with our business’s name (Cooking at The Cottage), as we always do, his first sentence was “Hahahahaha! I love that name! This is (guy from Yelp). I’d like to speak to the business owner!” He sallied this forth with a kind of loud-tie, polyester-suited used car salesman’s enthusiasm. When I politely let him know she wasn’t available and asked if I could take a message, he switched his well-oiled gears. “Well, let me ask you something,” (the added “little lady” wasn’t audible, but definitely implied), “How do you feel about Yelp?”

I gave this a few seconds’ consideration. Huh? How do I feel about Yelp, right now, in this moment? My internal emotional needle immediately plunged deeply into negative territory. I stammered something along the lines of “well, I, uh… ,” and he steamrollered right over me. He didn’t really care so much how I felt about Yelp. His question was just a verbal can opener he used to gain access to the next part of his spiel. He asked me if I ever used Yelp myself, to help me make decisions about whether to patronize or visit various businesses. My honest answer was: Yes, occasionally I do. He went on to paint a flowery picture of how he could help our business owner learn to navigate the deep waters of Yelp and turn its many features to her advantage. I managed to end the call fairly quickly, miming writing down his contact number in the air above the desk and promising to pass it along.

When I had to time think about it later, I wondered why, aside from his shtick, I had that immediate negative reaction. After all, Yelp is an easily navigable platform, available to most of the developed world. It provides the user with information submitted directly by patrons of businesses. It has a star-rating system that’s easy to understand. And although I don’t often write Yelp reviews, I have used it from time to time in making a decision — where to dine when I’m out of town, which nail or hair salon to visit or what auto-repair shop to use.

But as a business owner, or someone emotionally invested in the place one works or a business owned by a friend, it’s difficult to think positively of internet reviews — despite the fact that 99 percent of them are positive. Those dozens of atta-boy, ‘this place is Fantastic!’ reviews are sweet when you read them, but when you hear the word “Yelp”, you don’t think of those first. You think of the two one-star reviews still hanging out at the bottom of the list. That lady who was dissatisfied and didn’t bother to tell a manager, or that guy who created a big stink about something he misunderstood about your policies, never having availed himself of them, even though they were obviously stated and readily available. I can’t think of a single owner or manager I know who would say, “Are you kidding? We Love Yelp!”, when asked their opinion.

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The truth is, it’s easy for a dissatisfied customer to do a drive-by, negative internet review. I don’t say too easy because, let’s face it — that’s the world we live in now, and we’re never going back to letters to the editor of the local newspaper as a means to express dissatisfaction with a business. Owners and managers are then forced to defend themselves against such reviews with carefully-worded responses and attempts to make things right, publicly, on the same platform where the complaint was lodged — rather than in a face-to-face interaction or a simple phone conversation. Reviewers tend to really pump up the outrage factor online, too, since they aren’t faced with a concerned representative of the business who might try to mitigate the situation one to one.

So please think carefully when you post a negative review, and do so only after you’ve tried to get some satisfaction from the establishment in question and made no headway. People’s businesses and livelihood are in the balance.

After all, do you ever read the three-star reviews? Me neither. Just the great ones and the stinky ones. Am I right, little lady? •

Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, Café Lou Lou, Marketplace @ Theater Square, Fontleroy’s and Harvest.

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