In my opinion, yelp is a business model doomed to failure because the very people they derive income from, i.e. business owners who would pay for promotion, are the same people they refuse to help with hateful, inaccurate, one-sided reviews that never tell the whole story and are a real disservice to honest, hard working business owners. If business owners are paying for yelp promotion (usually around $300 per month) to ensure that good reviews are not hidden, I guarantee you, they feel like they’re being extorted.

My story begins with a few sales calls.  yelp was breaking into the Midwest and was touting all their successes on the East Coast, driving business to small businesses. I’m pretty internet savvy, so I looked at Google trends in Cincinnati  and compared them to google, yahoo, bing, etc. They were virtually non-existent. So I told them I didn’t want to advertise with them because my organic listing on Google placed me in the 1,2 or 3 spot for my targeted keywords. Over the next three (3) years, a sales rep would call a couple times each year and I either didn’t return the call or said “no” to advertising.  Then in mid-2012 I noticed my company had a 2.5-star rating with four or five VISIBLE reviews. When the sales rep called in August I took the call and basically gave her (Amy) a hard time refusing to pay for promotion driving people to their site where I had such a poor rating. It seemed absurd to me.

What happened over the next week really floored me! My rating went from 2.5-stars to 1.5-stars! How could that happen? I discovered they have the ability to hide reviews in a small, hard to find, grayed-out section called “other reviews not currently recommended”. They claim to have an unbiased filter that randomly removes questionable or illicit reviews, but I find the timing and coincidence very suspicious.  No amount of calling Amy back changed anything. I asked to speak to a manager and she said one was not available (she was probably working from home).

Please keep this in mind as we go forward, 1 and 2-star reviews are typically one-sided, inaccurate, exaggerated and ANONYMOUS! I appreciate good, constructive criticism because it helps me understand and close gaps in my business.  Every service and product we sell in our business is 100% GUARANTEED so if  we mess something up – and it happens – just let us know and we’ll fix it! Personal experience has taught me that some of my best clients are those that were once dissatisfied. As long as we can find them, and they’re reasonable (the vast majority of people are), we’ve ALWAYS been able to work things out with honest and sincere communication.

I’ll give you an example. The following 1-star review was posted on 12/31/2011. The service Erica is writing about occurred on Black Friday, five weeks earlier! What was she waiting for and how upset could she be? Also, Erica lives in Chicago where I’m pretty sure the prices for equivalent services are higher. Anyway, here it is:

“Stopped in here to get my lip and brow waxed after grabbing lunch with friends on Black Friday. Not only was it ridiculously expensive ($45 for lip and brow wax) but it was extremely sloppy – I ended up spending 30 minutes tweezing out hairs they missed during the wax. My brows were uneven (different thicknesses) – if I had wanted that, I would have done a home waxing kit!  I kicked myself for not noticing the mistakes in the salon, but the lighting where they do the waxing is quite dim, making it hard to spot blunders. Proceed with caution – there are better, cheaper salons in the Greater Cincinnati area”.

I responded to Erica twice.  The first was in a response to the review, the second was a private message through yelp, but in both cases I received no response. She was hiding behind the anonymity of her profile in yelp so there was no other way to contact her, which brings up another point – most people who write scathing reviews disappear and forget they ever wrote them. They don’t consider the long term effect on the business because honestly, only terrible businesses that are doomed to failure warrant a 1-star review – that’s 20% – an ‘F’ on any grading scale. My first and second responses to Erica:

8_30_2013 Erica commentSecond Erica Response

Did we do things wrong with Erica? Probably. The service provider should have taken her to the Treatment Room and not done the service at the shampoo bowl, but does this mistake deserve a 1-star review? Erica incorrectly stated the price, she wrote the review five weeks after her visit, she wrote the review on 12/31/2011 along with eight (8) other business reviews (and at this writing 1/12/15 has not written another review) and I’m going to assume she exaggerated about spending 30 minutes cleaning up the job, but none of this matters because she was ‘unreachable’ and she didn’t care.

The story doesn’t end there though. I was finally able to track her down in our system where she left contact information which we always put in the unique Client ID record. This record shows client history of visits, services and products purchased. I found her email address and shot her an email on 6/27/14:

“Hello Erica:
This is Mark Welch, owner of the former Bajon Salon & Spa in West Chester.  Back in November 2011 you wrote a negative review on yelp that was based on an experience you had.  Could you please look at the review and see if you feel the same way. I tried contacting you a couple times through yelp about a year ago, but couldn’t. The company has moved, the name has been changed and it’s a totally new environment and staff. I’m just trying to clean up some of the stuff from the past. Please let me know if you’ll kindly remove the review.  Thank you.”

 No reply. Then on 6/30/14 this email:

“Hi Erica:
When you wrote the review in 2012 I didn’t see it until eight months later and then I responded.  I copied my response below for you to see.  My offer still stands.  Please check out the new SoZo HAIR location at the corner of West Chester and Cincinnati Dayton Roads.  You should be able to find us on Facebook to see what the new facility looks like.
Hopefully you’ll try us out and be able to write a better review and possibly delete the old outdated one.  Let me know!
Sincerely,
Mark
“Sorry your experience at Bajon Salon & Spa was not to your expectations. All of our services are 100% GUARANTEED so we would have taken care of your dissatisfaction had we known about it. If you’re ever in Cincinnati again, please stop by and let us perform the services for you again at no charge.  We want you to be happy!  I do have a question though – we don’t charge $45 for a lip and brow wax.  Could you be mistaken on the price?  Even today you would have only spent $37 and you were in awhile ago.  Also, we have a Treatment Room that clients can request for all their waxing services.  It’s a beautiful, quiet room where you can relax and get away from it all!  Let me know if we can be of assistance.  I hope to see you again”.”

No reply, then on 7/7/2014 this email:

“Hi Erica:
From your visit to Bajon Salon I have a local address here in West Chester at 8495 Goldfinch Way. If I sent you a $25 gift card, do you think you’d use it?  Let me know!  Thanks!!
Mark”

To which I finally got this reply on the same day:

“Hi mark-
I no longer live in west Chester and do not thinking is fair for you to ask me to alter a post describing my (poor) experience with your salon. If you continue to prod me to do it, I will use public forums to allows others to know this as well.  Thanks!”

I answered back for the last time same day:

“Erica:
No problem, I understand.  Just so we’re clear I’ve only been interested in trying to get you back in so you could have a different, and hopefully, better experience.  Public forums, i.e. review sites, where people are anonymous can be brutal to businesses.  Businesses rarely deserve a 1-star review (20% out of 100%, an F on anybodies scale) that tell a one-sided story that’s destructive, not constructive.

I was elected last November as a Trustee in West Chester Township and one of the first things the new Board did was prohibit anonymous complaints to the zoning department.  Anonymous complaints can be vicious and frivolous causing suspicion and angst among neighbors.  Our court system says a person always has the right to face their accuser, but not so in the internet world. If a complaint is so egregious that it needs reporting, then someone should be willing to sign their name to it.

No need to respond. I consider the matter closed.
Mark”

Not to belabor the malicious, 1-star, one-sided, anonymous reviews, but here’s one more.  A young girl in her early twenties comes into the salon for a haircut. She’s on crutches, irritable and has no idea what she wants, i.e. gives no direction in the consultation phase. So my wife proceeds to give her a nice haircut. Bear in mind my wife has the innate, subconscious ability to look at a person’s face, hair, complexion, etc. and immediately know “their best side” and what will be the most complimentary cut, color, style, you name it!  As she’s working the girl is bitching and complaining.  My wife tells her as they’re walking to the front desk to checkout “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to pay”. So she didn’t even pay for the service and left.  Within a few days she wrote the following anonymous review online:

staypink3x
“Worst experience ever. Karen did my hair, she was very unprofessional and lacked knowledge as a senior artistic designer. Avoid this salon, very uptight and unfriendly.”

First things first, after discovering the review, I start the process of trying to piece together the facts by talking to my employees. Since she’s anonymous gathering facts is problematic. I can’t even respond to the review!  I spent five weeks finding numbers to call, calling several times, asking for removal and waiting for response(s) from the review site, in this case google. Coincident to this I’m online searching for solutions to flag the review “inappropriate”. None of them fit, so I choose one and wait. Long story short, they refuse to remove it because it’s not hateful enough – it falls within their guidelines as a good review.

I’m stuck……….but wait! I have one piece of information, her anonymous handle ‘staypink3x’. So I use the internet for what it was designed for and begin searching the term staypink3x. It took a day or two, but I was able to connect the dots of social media and discovered her true identity! I plugged her name into my salon database and was able to see when she was in, what services she got and best of all, contact information. Now I can collect meaningful facts from employees and find out what really happened. It’s now been six weeks since she wrote the review and I finally write a response, but it’s unsatisfactory because the 1-star is damaging my online google rating. All hope of the review site removing the review is exhausted so I make one last desperate attempt to get it removed. I emailed my response to the reviewer, it follows:

“Dear ______:

Below is our response to your extraordinary review of your recent visit with Karen at Bajon Salon & Spa.
Your review:
Worst experience ever. Karen did my hair, she was very unprofessional and lacked knowledge as a senior artistic designer. Avoid this salon, very uptight and unfriendly.
Our response:
“Why J… K… posted these mean, hateful comments about Karen and Bajon Salon, I’ll never know. Karen is the most customer-service oriented person I’ve ever met! She’s a true professional with 30 years experience. Her motto is “the customer is always right”! Jasleen had a chip on her shoulder when she came in and didn’t know what she wanted and refused to communicate her needs. So my wife, Karen, tried to read her mind (guess she can’t after all) and gave her a cute cut, which she didn’t even charge her for, not because it was “bad”, but simply because Jasleen didn’t like it! We GUARANTEE all our work at Bajon Salon and work hard to ensure client satisfaction! Go to our website and read our mission statement. These kinds of hateful, inaccurate, one-sided reviews never tell the whole story and are a real disservice to honest, hard working businesses and owners. Shame on you J… to make such an ‘off the cuff’ judgment about a great person. I guess you thought you’d be anonymous with staypink3x. Isn’t the internet a wonderful thing!”

Mark Welch

“It is a psychologic fact that our feelings about ourselves tend to correspond to our feelings about other people”  Dr. Maxwell Maltz
“The false self is a powerful adversary, one whose sharp-tongued admonitions can be heard in every situation of self-doubt, a foe that keeps us from our true selves and sometimes distances us from others. Magically, when there is no enemy within, there are far fewer without.”  Dr. Mary-Elaine Jacobsen”

Know what happened? Within a day or two SHE DELETED the review. It was gone! No more glaring 1-star nasty review! This is what I figure happened – she left the salon pissed at the world, wrote the terrible and unjustified review then promptly forgot about it.  Over the next two or three weeks she probably got a lot of compliments about how cute her hair was, but still no thought about the terrible review. It was only after I found her and called her out did she realize the review was unjustified.

So what’s the moral of this story?

  1. Anonymity sucks! People get vicious and vindictive when they believe their identity is secret and there’s no consequence to words they write or actions they perform.
  2. The best and ONLY way to get a crappy review removed is to get in touch with the reviewer, if possible, and get them back in for services (or products). The review sites WILL NOT remove them.

Back to yelp and finish.  Remember my rating went from 2.5-stars to 1.5-stars after I refused to “pay for promotion”. I had a couple inaccurate, one-sided, 1-star reviews ‘more than a year old’ reviews that I attempted to fix. I contacted yelp, I messaged the reviewers and I responded to the reviews. Nothing happened.

So I did what any business guy would do, I called close friends and family members, all who were long time, satisfied clients and asked them to write a nice review. Know what happened? Within a day or two, the automated Yelp filter REMOVED ALL THE 5-STAR REVIEWS including a 5-star review that was from an experienced yelper with a lot of friends!!

My Yelp rating fell to 1-star because all the 5-star reviews had been filtered! And it gets better – the automated Yelp filter apparently removes a great 5-star review when the reviewer has only written one review. It interprets the review as solicited, unfair or coerced. So the “Yelper” must write more reviews before “the filter” will interpret the reviewer as valid. How stupid is this.

In January 2013 I began the process to sue yelp in small claims court for manipulating reviews in order to extort money. The process took five months and ended in a “telephonic hearing” where I stated my case in a San Francisco courtroom over the phone in the presence of a judge and a yelp lawyer. Here was my premise:

  • “Yelp has unfairly damaged the reputation of my business by manipulating the review process with a filtering system that hides reviews that “are not currently recommended” and thus influences people to not view them.
  • A company’s rating is derived only from the ‘seen’ or not-hidden reviews.
  • yelp sales people solicit advertising business and claim they will help you improve your rating if you advertise with them.
  • In my case, when I said “No” to their advertising program my rating went from 2.5 stars to 1.5 stars within one week.
  • The supposedly unbiased and impartial filter was subjective in that it removed my only 5-star rating (at the time) from the viewable reviews thus dropping my rating.
  • This manipulation of the rating system is nothing less than extortion.
  • I can’t quit yelp. I can’t unsubscribe from their service. I’m stuck!”

In a 23 page document that I submitted to the court, I had screen shots, responses to reviews, history, yelper profiles, other review site ratings that showed us consistently at 4.5-stars, my yelp review and their response and I even demonstrated how I could setup a bogus profile in two minutes and start writing reviews.

None of it mattered. I lost because the judge ruled that yelp has no control over what people write and they had some kind of immunity in the California Revised Code.

Since that time we’ve moved to a new location and changed our name from Bajon Salon & Spa to SoZo HAIR by Bajon Salon & Spa (we have a private label professional hair care product line called ‘SoZo Heavenly Hair Care’ and we updated the salon name to more closely identify with our product offering). I’ve let yelp know that the “old” business is out-of-business, the location is wrong and the name is wrong and although they say they’re “sad to see me go”, the old profile remains. It won’t go away because they won’t delete it. I’ve made the submission three (3) times!

Today, yelp makes money providing web reviews to other search and review sites so their reach is not confined to their own website. Where ever you see “powered by yelp” you’re yelp reviews are being displayed. It’s like a spider’s web. My only hope is that they go out of business or there’s such a backlash from business that they change their policies and procedures.

Lastly, here is the response from yelp regarding my review. I’m not including my review of yelp because it’s redundant with the above. My comments are in red. This was also provided to the court.

Yelp’s Response:

Hi Mark,

Thanks for taking the time to review Yelp.

We understand your frustrations regarding our review filter. The filter decides how established a particular reviewer is and whether a review will be shown based on the user’s involvement on Yelp (Scott L. on page 7 wrote a 5-star review. He has 88 friends and 13 reviews. His review has been removed). The filtering process is automated to reduce human bias, and it affects both positive and negative reviews. Either way, we never actually delete your reviews. They can still be found on the user’s personal profile page and are also viewable by clicking on the “Filtered” link at the bottom of your business page. This “filtered” link is labeled “other reviews that are not recommended” so they’re discouraging people to look, plus the filtered reviews are excluded from the STAR score.

Sure, this can be frustrating because it sometimes affects perfectly legitimate reviews. The flip side is that it helps protect against fake reviews from malicious competitors and disgruntled former employees. This is a joke and DOES NOT protect against fake reviews. ANYONE can sign up in seconds with a fake name and email address. I created an account a few minutes ago using the name Mark Weller and the email address markw@bajon.com. The only other piece of information that was required was a zip code and I entered 45044 which is a city in Ohio.

At any rate, we really appreciate your feedback. Positive, negative, and even neutral reviews are all helpful to us.

Thanks again,
Graham (Yelper Helper)

Can anyone guess what yelp’s star rating is on yelp? 2.5 out of 5 stars! Too bad their business isn’t affected as quickly and negatively as all us small retail service businesses. Just read a press release dated August 2014 from SFGate “Yelp turns 1st profit, but making money remains a struggle”.  Yelp started in business in San Francisco in 2004. That’s 10 years and they just made their first profit! What’s that tell you about their business model? To me it says there have been a lot of irrationally exuberant investors dumping lots of money into a “pig and a poke” and they’re in sooo deep that they want to keep it alive long enough to off load to some equally uninformed irrational investor before it tanks. Ever hear of Enron?

Hope this helps any other business trying to deal with yelp. By the way, over the 24201411924years our salon has been honored with over a dozen “Best Of” awards.  Most recently we were awarded “Best of the North 2013 – 2014” by Cincy Magazine.

Mark_2014_for_Web
Mark S. Welch

Mark is SoZo HAIR by Bajon Salon & Spa’s Director of Operations and Owner. Mark has a degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Cincinnati and, after spending 23 years in sales and sales management in corporate America, decided to become an entrepreneur. Mark’s responsibilities at SoZo HAIR include marketing and sales, merchandising, technology improvement and implementation, salon maintenance, accounting and cost control and all computer, network and web facilitation.

My Education:

United States Naval Academy (Annapolis, MD) – Studies in Mechanical Engineering
University of Cincinnati – Bachelor of Science Degree Chemical Engineering

 

ONLINE BOOKING