Rob Shields takes his consumer gripes straight to the public, in 140 characters or less.
A frustrated Twitter post about a flight delay to Minneapolis last week despite "crystal clear skies" prompted an instant apology from Delta Air Lines and an offer to help book a new flight. When he visited what he considered a messy Chipotle Mexican Grill, he tweeted about his "worst chipotle experience to date" and got an apologetic tweet seconds later from the company and free meal coupons in the mail.
Shields also takes his cues from online complaints: If someone gives a lousy review of a restaurant on Yelp, he won't eat there.
Businesses are grappling with a new world, thanks to social media and increasingly popular review sites such as Yelp. The dynamic has even forced the traditional avenues of consumers' complaints to lay it all out in the open.
Next month, the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota will start publishing entire complaints online, something it has never done before.
"This is something people really want," BBB spokesman Dan Hendrickson said. "The Internet has really opened the doors wide."
While the growing realm of reviews is adding more outlets for consumers to sound off, it's also expanding the virtual landscape companies must sift through to protect their reputation. One local orthodontist filed an FBI fraud complaint after someone trashed him online. From posting a review of a plumber on Angie's List to rating a restaurant on Urbanspoon, everyone is now a click away from being a critic.
In a recent study of social media users by Nielsen and NM Incite, most social media said they give online reviews to give companies recognition, but 58 percent said they give negative feedback to protect others from bad experiences. Among 18- to 34-year-olds, 42 percent expect customer support within 12 hours of such a complaint.
"This is a fundamental shift in the way businesses operate," said Kary Delaria, whose company, Kane Consulting in Minneapolis, advises companies on online reputation management. "We're becoming a society of consumers that want businesses to act like a person. And businesses haven't done this before."
For Shields, 23, a research analyst who recently moved from Minneapolis to Chicago, giving instant online feedback not only renders formal BBB or state agency complaints unnecessary, but also alerts other consumers. And those other consumers do the same for him.
"I would much rather believe a customer who is like me," he said.
Most people agree. In a recent report by public relations agency Weber Shandwick, 88 percent of consumers said word-of-mouth opinions online and offline drive their view of a company -- the leading factor. About 80 percent of people said online reviews and search results determine what they think about a company, with social networks influencing 49 percent of consumers.
"There is no doubt that user-generated online reviews such as those found on recommendation sites ... have fast become omnipotent arbiters of brand trust and company assurance," the report said.
That's why Alex Heide, 23, of Minneapolis relies on Yelp, turning to like-minded foodies to tell her where to go -- or where not to. This month, she checked out Marvel Bar after reading a rave review of the Minneapolis nightspot on Yelp. Then she added her 174th review in two years, giving it five stars but noting the "expensive" drinks and "tough to locate" address.
Getting on a consumer's side online can pay off. A 2011 study by Harvard Business School assistant professor Michael Luca found that restaurants whose Yelp ratings increase by one star can see revenue increase by 5 to 9 percent. There's no ignoring the site: Since its launch in 2004, Yelp's traffic has reached 66 million monthly visitors and 25 million reviews, according to the site.
Twin Cities orthodontist Paul Ziman knows the power of online posts, which is why he frequently does a Google search of his name. He was alarmed when a search this month found, among positive online reviews, a single scathing post on a doctor review site. It began with five sharp words: "Do NOT go to him."
"I've never had this happen," said Ziman, who thinks the post is fake. "You can get your reputation sullied through rumor, innuendo and falsities."
He filed an online fraud complaint with the FBI this month against the site doctoroogle.com. In an e-mail to the Star Tribune, the site said he can post a public reply. Ziman said he refuses to do so because of an $18 fee and the fact that he can't discuss patients because of privacy laws.
Fearing negative online comments like that, more local companies are turning to online reputation management consultants like Delaria to help monitor multiplying review sites and combat negativity.
"Businesses are really, really afraid of anyone saying something about them; it demands good business practices," she said. "Businesses need to know it exists and it's not going away."
Greater access to complaints
Across the country, Better Business Bureaus are also taking note. In response to consumer requests, the local office will follow other BBBs by publishing complaints in their entirety starting in March, searchable online after a business responds. Last year, the Consumer Product Safety Commission did the same with consumer reports of defective products.
The expanded opportunities for consumers to sound off isn't all bad for businesses, said Ravi Bapna, a professor at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management who advises local companies and teaches MBA students how to "leverage social media."
Bapna advises companies to develop an online strategy, quell negative reviews by encouraging consumers to post positive reviews and shift money that goes to traditional advertising to online platforms.
"Social media and Web platforms have really changed the playing field in relation to the relationship between the business and the consumer. ... Users have unfettered power," he said. "We're better off having these avenues for people to express their preferences and take away the sole power of businesses to control the message."
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141 Twitter: @kellystrib
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