• April 1, 2014
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

Eschew the Peer Review?

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We've all got that one story. You know the one. You went to a restaurant that a friend recommended to you, only to receive lousy food and rude service. Or you told your aunt that she'd love this book you've just read, and when she gives it back, she questions your sanity.

Despite a wealth of anecdotes like these, we're left with overwhelming evidence that recommendations from peers are among the most valued references for a product or service. Back in 2006, Pew Research told us that the most trusted source of consumer information was "people like me," meaning fellow consumers. That still holds true, more or less; the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer ranks "a person like yourself" a strong number-three trusted spokesperson, right behind academic/expert opinion and a company expert.

Why the disparity? Well, the plural of anecdote is not data. We point out the exceptions because they're memorable, and forget all the times a recommendation was more or less on target. If we didn't trust those recommendations, we wouldn't listen to them--and we get skunked once in a while.

A dear friend of mine recently decided to buy a new car, and outsourced a lot of the choosing process to his social circle. There's nothing wrong with this approach, at least to some extent. He's interested in economy and high-tech cockpit gadgetry, and it's easier to get that information from people whose biases are based on personal experience, not a desire to earn a commission. Plus, you already know how I feel about getting vicarious excitement and info on cars ("Top Gear Is Driven to Excite," December 2013). But he's looking to have most of the decision made for him, and that's not a likely recipe for success.

The problem is that subjective experience cuts both ways. No matter how many recommendations you get, when shopping for an automobile, for example, there is no substitute for getting in the driver's seat yourself. What would happen if everybody recommended one make and model, but you found that the seats were uncomfortable and that the sight lines have some bad blind spots? A car is a major purchase--one that should last for many years. That's a long time to suffer buyer's remorse and an uncomfortable ride. Advice can give you ideas to follow up and can nix some others, but it's best to have a list to pick from and then let test drives (preferably with rentals, not dealership cars) guide you to the end.

It's been a very long time since my brother, a fellow born-and-bred New Yorker, has lived in the Big Apple, and he misses certain things. Especially pizza. Oh sure, you can get pizza anywhere--but you can't get New York pizza anywhere else. We have to make time for a trip to one of our favorite locals whenever he's in town. Friends of his in St. Louis (his current stomping grounds) all pointed him to a particular restaurant that they claimed had the authentic taste and texture of a New York slice. I don't know them, but I can promise you they're not from New York. Nice restaurant, nice friendly owner, but the pizza didn't even approach the claims. Disappointment naturally ensued.

Difference of opinion is what makes a horse race, they say. Marketing is becoming a contest between vendors who can get the most and best customer reviews in front of prospective buyers. The art is not in getting the endorsements--they're out there, whether businesses want them or not. The art is building a message around those endorsements, extending the positive stories and common threads from other individuals' experience into your own imagination. The company might not control the message anymore, but it can point to the parts it wants you to focus on.

Marshall Lager is the founding advice-giver of Third Idea Consulting, and does not currently own a car or any pizza. Share his experiences at www.3rd-idea.com, or www.twitter.com/Lager.

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