James Daley

By James Daley

Whether you're looking for them or not, it's hard to avoid making a purchase without having a customer review pushed in your face these days. What started with the likes of Tripadvisor and Amazon encouraging feedback on hotels and online purchases has grown into an entire industry - headed by companies such as Reevoo and Feefo, who can help businesses in just about any sector harness some valuable feedback from their clients.

As reviews have become more ubiquitous, people seem to have been quick to integrate them into their decision making processes. If faced with two similar products of the same price on Amazon - one with a three star rating and one with a five star rating - it's hard not to pick the latter. Some may stop to read the comments in detail, and to check whether a decent number of reviews lie behind the rating. But many will take the star ratings at face value. They're a powerful tool - which can make or break the fortunes of a product.

Are all reviews rigged?

At the back of our minds, we all realise that review systems are open to abuse. If you're a new and ambitious company, why wouldn't you get all your friends to buy your product on Amazon and leave a good review? Or if you run a B&B, why not shove an ipad in the hands of your happy customers, and get them to leave a positive review (and not bother to do the same with your pickier guests)?

If you think it's cynical to believe that these are the kind of tactics that companies would stoop to - think again. Last week, a hotel in Blackpool was caught out trying to fine a customer who left negative feedback.

My own experience with take-away broker Hungry House a couple of weeks ago seemed in the same vein. When I was asked to give my feedback about their app, I clicked on the button to register some dissatisfaction, but was simply presented with the option to send them an email. If I'd clicked to say how happy I was, my feedback would have been integrated into a star rating. We "love feedback" - they responded to my angry tweet. Sure - as long as it's positive feedback.

When it comes to choosing your online take-away intermediary, perhaps this isn't a particularly big deal. Hungry House's main rival Just Eat might feel aggrieved - but maybe they use the same tactics. Who knows?

But as reviews are used to make ever more important purchases, the lack of independence and scrutiny that surrounds them is worrying.

SImply the best?

Financial data provider Moneyfacts is currently calling for votes for its 2015 financial services awards. The most likely place that you'll find the call to vote in the survey is on the website of your own bank or building society - but only if they've made the shortlist.

I'm a credit card customer of MBNA - and should preface what I'm about to say by clarifying that I'm a happy customer. When I log into my account at the moment, I'm asked if I'd like to give my feedback on them - in return for being entered into the Moneyfacts prize draw. Click on the link, and you'll find that MBNA sits amongst a shortlist of just 10 brands - in a sector where there are over 100. None of the four top rated brands in Fairer Finance's league tables are there. Even apart from the fact that the shortlist is inadequate, it's hard to believe that people who are motivated to vote for a cash prize are likely to be negative about their provider.

If you take a trip to MBNA's headquarters in Chester, you'll find the "Moneyfacts credit card provider of the year 2014" flag hanging out the front. Like I said, I'm a happy customer. But in the polls that we carry out, MBNA is below average for customer satisfaction and trust. It's like being crowned world champion when you only won a race at the Commonwealth Games - where none of the best athletes competed.

Customer feedback is useful and powerful tool. But as it begins to be used more often, it's vital that we find ways of ensuring that the results aren't rigged. More and more people are making their purchase decisions based on ratings that are essentially false.

It may be something for the Advertising Standards Authority to explore in the first instance. But my suspicion is that a body with much more clout will be required to intervene. It's an issue close to our heart that we're talking about to anyone who will listen. We'll keep you posted on our progress.