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How Yelp Improves Our Hearing

I’m smitten with online reviews. Nearly daily, I use reviews to pick lunch spots in new neighborhoods and to decide between two hike options. I love knowing what people think, even when it hurts. Like the time a reader shared that “Mission Drift” could be improved if it was shortened to a five-page article. I also have a growing affection for authoring my own reviews.

Some of these reviews are borne out of righteous indignation. For instance, when an overhyped donut shop proved to be just that. Or when a restaurant treated my son like a mosquito at a summer picnic. I didn’t hold back on that one. Lest you think I’m Donnie Downer, I do have one rule for penning online reviews: I pair every negative review with a positive counterpart. Among many other favorites, I’ve publicly lauded our neighborhood pizza jointone of my favorite books, and a great barbershop I frequented recently. The more reviews I have posted, the more fascinated I’ve grown with the way Yelp helps businesses to listen.

We recently hired a builder to replace the aging cedar fence in our backyard. After soliciting bids from three companies, we chose the contractor that best fit our project. Overall, we were satisfied with their work. There was just one exception, which I noted in my review:

[The contractor] was prompt in communication. They completed the project in their established timeframe. I received three bids for the work and their bid was competitive (and they stayed on budget). Unfortunately, they built the fence 7.5″ from our rear property line, which has caused us to lose 15 square feet of our backyard. For a small Denver property; that 15 square feet is significant! When I asked them why this happened, they acknowledged the crew made a mistake. I understand the fact that we all make mistakes, but they did not fix their mistake, nor did they offer any sort of solution for the mistake. I brought it up with them several times, but they did not do anything to rectify the problem. We’re satisfied with the final product, but disappointed to have lost some of our backyard, hence the 3-star rating.

Three days after I posted my review, the owner of the company wrote me an email:

I just read the review you gave us…I am sorry to leave you dissatisfied. I should have followed up a little more closely; I didn’t realize the fence placement was unacceptable to you.  Would it be possible for us to correct this for you?  I don’t want to cause any inconvenience but we strive to have our customers 100% satisfied.  Let me know what you think and again I am sorry it wasn’t done correctly the first time!

He has scheduled a site visit this week to make the problem right. When he does, of course I’ll happily adjust our review. Good or bad, today we all have access to a virtual megaphone. This power existed before the Internet, of course. But never has it been as easy, nor as visible. This constant flow of feedback is why Jacqueline Novogratz articulates how the marketplace helps businesses to hear their customers.

“The market actually is a good listening device,” Novogratz said. “I give you a pair of blue shoes as a gift. You say, ‘Thank you very much, they’re wonderful.’ And then you throw them in the garbage as you leave. I ask you if you want to pay for it, you say, ‘Yes. No. I’d pay for it if they were brown or pink.’ We’re having a conversation. So I see real power in the private sector as a way of listening, as a way of creating efficiencies.”

[pq]Good or bad, today we all have access to a virtual megaphone.[/pq]

If grandma writes me a check for my birthday, I’m not going to call her and request she send the gift in cash instead—even if that would be my preference. We are rightfully less prone to provide feedback on gifts we receive. But this becomes a major challenge for nonprofits. It’s really difficult, actually, to hear from our customers, from the people we aim to help. This has weighty consequences. It’s one of the chief reasons that many charitable efforts fail to achieve their desired goals. It’s why one of our founder’s earliest initiatives to help the poor didn’t actually work.

Sometimes we’ve acted like just working in challenging places like Congo and Haiti is good enough. It’s not. Even though it’s difficult to provide loans and savings accounts in these countries, we believe the people we serve are partners, not charity cases. This is why HOPE is investing hundreds of thousands of dollars to better listen to our clients, because we owe it to the people we serve to hear what they think of us. We aren’t always thrilled by what we learn, but even the harshest critiques offer valuable insights. Understanding is the first step toward improving. Nonprofits might lack Yelp reviews, but our customers still have opinions we need to hear.

This was originally posted at Smorgasblurb.