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Many brands are paranoid about what their customers say online about their products and services. They invest in expensive systems to scan the blogs and social networks, gauging sentiment and yet how often do they really interact in a meaningful way?

Often this approach comes from the boardroom. They ask managers to monitor what people are saying, but the data analysis team has no authority to jump into conversations or close down complaints by answering a question online. If the company is smart then the people working on analytics will be plugged into the customer service team so questions and complaints can be handled on the channels where they are created.

But should you actually be encouraging customers to write reviews and to rate your services? I don’t mean on third party websites or social networks, I mean on your own website. Think of hotels as an example of what I’m proposing here. When I look at the Hilton website I only see their hotels in the best possible light with descriptions written by professionals and beautiful photographs featuring models. Yet if I want to really know what a hotel is like then I go to Tripadvisor.

What if your customers could post their own information directly onto your product pages in a way that complements all the professional content?

The insurance company AXA is asking customers to do exactly this. It’s a brave move because I rarely have anything good to say about any insurance company that I have interacted with – although maybe other customers have other opinions. AXA believes that by posting reviews and ratings direct from their customers it will give additional product information that customers feel they can trust more than the usual sales pitch.

I like the idea and I think there is almost no product that couldn’t benefit from this approach. When I look at the Ford website for information on a new car I know that the product information will feature the vehicle effortlessly sweeping across a vast mountain range. I’d like to see what real Ford customers think of the vehicle rather than see yet another mud-splashing photo.

I don’t even think they need to fear the negative reviews, look at Tripadvisor as an example of this. I know that if I’m looking for a good restaurant in an unfamiliar town and I see one that has 800 reviews and most reviews are excellent or good then it’s worth a visit. There will almost certainly be some bad reviews too, because nobody has a fantastic experience every time, but if I can see that 90% of the customers really liked a place then it’s clearly safe to try it.

This is equally true of products like cars or insurance. I once had a terrible experience buying a Citroen car. It wasn’t the fault of the manufacturer though, it was an over-enthusiastic sales guy who over-promised on the upgrades to the point at which I had a great deal, but the dealer was almost certainly going to lose money on the sale and tried backing out after a deposit was paid. I could write about that experience very negatively, but I’m sure other customers would be intelligent enough to see that it was nothing to do with the quality of the vehicles.

I think the AXA experiment with directly encouraging customers to leave feedback that is displayed on their own website, next to the product information, is going to be an interesting way to increase trust in product information. How many other brands will try this soon?

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