The Likert scale, online reviews and the ‘average’ campaign

I’ve seen an increase in the number of online retailers that are using customer feedback platforms to solicit reviews and build trust in their brand. I think it’s a very good idea and like many others I rely on reviews when deciding where to purchase. But I’ve noticed a pattern that introduces bias in these review systems and I thought it mention it just for the sake of variety!

Online retailing is a volume operation. Vendors can offer low prices because they either specialise in a particular category of product and therefore have every possible variant of the product, or they move so many of a particular item that they can operate on very small margins. As a consequence the vast majority of transactions are completed successfully. We order a widget, the vendor ships it, the courier delivers it. We use the widget for it’s stated purpose and all is well in the world. A few days later the retailer asks for our feedback and we say ’you’re fabulous’ because we’re happy with our new widget. The result is that in most cases the majority of the feedback for a vendor is so shamelessly positive that it would make a triple-espresso addicted life coach blush.

But is this a true picture of the quality of a vendor? No. Here’s why – unless the review platform is completely corrupt you’ll find for any retailer a few negative reviews. And they’ll often be very negative. When things go wrong for online retailers they very often go very wrong, the whole razor-thin margins and heavily automated approach doesn’t leave much room for human interaction and that’s usually what’s needed when things go wrong. These retailers are simply not geared up to deliver customer service. They drive us nuts with their ham-fisted attempts and so when we’re asked to provide feedback we’re so incensed that we poke our finger in their eye in the only way we can – by giving them 1 star! All to no avail though, the caffeine imbibing life coaches will swamp our meagre protest with their happy flow positivity.

So anyway, is there a point to this? Yes, there are a few:

Firstly, the Likert scale that these reviews are based on doesn’t work. Why have 2,3 and 4 starts when everybody either gets 1 or 5? It’s a swizz people, you heard it here first. Look for the 1 star reviews and find out how these people truly treat their customers.

Secondly, the next time you’re asked to comment on the service provided by a vendor ask yourself whether they actually deserve anything other than an ‘average’ rating. I don’t know about you but when I walk into a supermarket, pick up a can of beans pay and leave, I don’t feel any sense of jubilation that I managed to complete my transaction successfully. Why should it be any different for online retailers?

Finally, and this is almost relevant to the general theme of my blog, I wonder if we can adopt a similar approach to determining the success of a software product. Every time it does what it’s supposed to we all dance around in jubilation so much so that when the wheel comes off every now and again, as it surely will, we’re all so busy partying that we don’t even notice. No? You mean you wouldn’t want to fly on the plane that was powered by that software? Man, it’s a cruel world indeed. We give life to these processes that exploit human psychology to influence our behaviour.Is this how the machines will finally take over – one algorithmic oversight after another? Winking smile

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