Uber’s Two-Way Reviews: a Game-Changer for Companies and Customers?

We’ve all been able to rate and review companies for some time. But what if companies could rate us consumers back?

Uber, which has had its share of controversy during its short life, has been putting this idea to the test. With the need to protect both passengers and their drivers, Uber created a two-way review system, as described on their blog:

“At Uber, riders rate their experience at the end of every trip, and drivers do the same. Uber regularly reviews that feedback and, through this process, we’re able to create and maintain a safe and respectful environment for riders and drivers in more than 200 cities around the world.”

Of course, consumer reviews have been around for a long time — we’ve been able to take pot shots at companies for over a decade now on sites like Amazon, Yahoo, and Yelp. And companies have been beholden to the aggregate scores we’ve assigned to them. But what if Uber’s two-way review system were applied in other industries? What if companies could rate you and I as customers?

Two-way reviews certainly have the ability to change the game of consumer reviews in four big ways:

Two-way reviews could level the playing field

In the endless debates that swirl around consumer reviews, companies have, in all fairness, been fighting with one hand tied behind their backs. They have complained about trying to manage their reputations while consumers have been free to hurl bad reviews at them without consequence. In response, they’ve resorted to what must feel like their only recourse: silencing consumers’ speech. But now Uber’s two-way reviews present a way to level the playing field between companies and their customers.

Especially in B2B markets, two-way reviews could be a powerful way for companies to account for the quality of the interactions they’ve had with each other. My company Skyrocket Media could leave a review about Salesforce, and Salesforce, in turn, could tell everyone what they thought of us.

Whether for B2B or B2C markets, two-way reviews would seem to force both parties to behave themselves and to be generous in their reviews. Of course, there is a possible dark side to this, but more on this later…

Two-way reviews could give companies another tool to improve their reputations

If all consumers were saints wrongly persecuted by evil corporations, two-way reviews would seem like a blatantly bad idea, but some consumers can be pretty ridiculous. They try to get freebies. They try to get discounts any way they can, and they pull any strong-arm tactic they can to get an extra five bucks. Few of us would disagree that these types of consumers probably deserve a negative review.

Two-way reviews would allow a company to call that type of consumer on their bad behavior. As with other types of data collection online and in the Internet of Things, these reviews, offered up by multiple companies, about an individual customer would eventually be aggregated into a personal consumer score. For instance, imagine some guy, Chad, yelled at the McDonald’s employee working the drive-thru and then abused the clerk at the gas station and then got cheap on his waiter’s tip at dinner the next day. Then these companies all submitted their own reviews of Chad, and those reviews all got aggregated into a composite consumer score. Before long, some companies might decide that Chad was just not worth their effort.

Companies could work together to not only weed out bad customers versus good ones, but to create pools of really good, and more profitable, customers. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s been happening for a long time in select industries.

In the financial world, you’re given a FICO score, based off your financial history. It is financial institutions’ way of giving their reviews of you to other institutions. They all benefit in that they’re able to keep high-risk bad apples away from their loans and keep only the low-risk ones who will make them profitable.

Insurance companies share similar consumer data with each other to avoid insuring — or at least charge more to — high-risk individuals.

The real question is not if this will happen with individual companies, but how to create two-way reviews that stretch across all companies and markets. Could a market-spanning giant like Amazon, which has featured only one-way reviews up to this point, implement a two-way review system for their hundreds of millions of customers and vendors? Suddenly, their shoppers would have to be just as aware of their consumer scores as their vendors are of their ratings today — or risk being avoided by picky vendors.

Lest we be tempted to cry foul over such a change, such discernment over what makes profitable customers versus unprofitable customers just makes good business sense. Companies often feel compelled to do whatever it takes to hold onto every customer they can. The irony is that these companies actually end up having worse reputations than those who recognize which customer aren’t worth keeping around and get rid of them. Once companies are able to identify risky customers before they even walk in the door, this kind of reputation management science kicks in. Like a lending institution defending itself against dangerous risk, businesses will deploy preventative measure to keep those customers out, along with the negative reviews that surely would’ve followed.

Of course, there is a dark side to this notion of scoring consumers, says Kat Kane at Wired:

“Imagine a world in which your worst interactions became data points in a cumulative customer profile sold to airlines, hotels or other companies.”

This gets especially scary for us consumers if…

Two-way reviews corrupt the motivation behind reviews

Speaking of Uber, red flags have already gone up from customers and industry observers alike. Kane, in his Wired article “The Big Hidden Problem With Uber: Insincere 5-Star Ratings,” said:

“While the feedback is supposedly anonymous, customers feel compelled to pump up their reviews and hope they will be rated in kind. After all, no one wants to be flagged as difficult, especially when it is unclear how such data could be aggregated and used in the future… Like many transactions in the online economy, ‘perfect’ has become the default rideshare rating. The majority of customers give five stars across the board, reserving one-star scores for only the most egregious experiences. There’s hardly any middle ground.”

Is the possible reciprocation of a high rating a good reason to give a company a good rating? Do you give your local Chili’s a good review because you’re afraid they might give you a bad review if you don’t? Or do you give them a good review because they actually did a good job? To give a bad restaurant a good rating out of fear of what they might say about us seems like a big disservice to the future customers who will read and act on our inaccurate reviews.

Two-way reviews have the potential to corrupt the reasons we give reviews in the first place, not out of a strong reaction to the products and services we receive, but out of fear our own reputations might be tainted.

“In an industry built entirely on trust between strangers,” says Kane, “this is an alarming notion.”

Two-way reviews create a high risk of retaliation

With the tainting of motivations behind reviews comes the worst manifestation of that: retaliation. In this regard, Uber’s system seems primed for some highly charged exchanges between drivers and passengers.

Uber passengers rate drivers on a scale of one to five. Drivers get a weekly report card that lets them know how they’re performing. Too many bad weeks and they’re sent to remedial classes, given a timeout, or kicked out of Uber’s fleet. It takes only an average score of 4.6 or less to put a driver in danger of deactivation. Deactivation can mean a loss of a job for drivers. With this at stake, there is a high potential for drivers to retaliate against passengers who give them that career-killing one-, two-, or three-star rating.

Transfer this model to the relationships between customers and companies, and you can imagine similar conflicts taking shape. In this situation, two-way reviews could quickly become not the check and balance between company and consumer they were supposed to be, but angry, vindictive exchanges with no positive outcome.

This represents the worst possible outcome of letting two-way reviews into our markets. They could simply foster too much negativity between parties more akin to the pointless exchanges that break out occasionally on social media than the civil feedback loop that should exist between companies and their customers.

Once again, it comes down to moderation

Consumer reviews in all their forms are constantly courting chaos and incivility. Two-way reviews, it seems, are no different. While they promise a greater level of equality in the customer-company feedback loop, they also introduce yet another tool for retaliation against consumers and companies alike. However, as with any kind of reviews, moderation by real people is the best way to keep these forces in check while still getting the benefits. Uber and other companies would do well to have people moderate their two-way reviews, looking for patterns of inaccurate ratings or reviews, screening those out, and quelling arguments.

Human moderated user reviews mixed with technology is one of the cool projects I am working on at bestcompany.com.

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