Why Yelp?


Time out from another writing project, an absorbing piece my handful of readers will learn about soon enough, to address something that feels ripe: no, it’s not a political or social movement, though I suppose I could announce and hereafter hashtag one, just for the heck of it. A good friend said to me yesterday—tritely I thought—that the best way to promote something was to make it forbidden fruit. So, I should ban my own books, then, I biliously replied.

I was solicited a few weeks ago by an earnest young man representing a company that thinks itself a Titan of marketing and promotion –Yelp. Who am I to argue, I might say, though I did argue with the worthy young man, whose quick-delivery salesmanship hit most of the right notes, save for those that pertain most specifically to my business. On that I claimed to have insider knowledge—ideas that threw water on his—though our discussion stirred associations, made me think about the assumptions that live in my little world, which pervade the world around me, but which might be changeable, after all.

I have to say I was impressed with the amount of time this salesman gave me. One hour of unpaid time would be unthinkable in my position, though as I write that I remind myself that some do give free consultations, unwisely I argue in another blog (See “Why I don’t…” – ya know). For my salesman and good-buddy-for-an-hour I must have meant $s in terms of a commission he thought imminent, as I was encouraging of his product for the most part. In fact, had my then soon-to-be-crashing (as in permanently) phone not thwarted connection by dropping the call, I might have given him my credit card info, thinking it time to do my own bit of salesmanship with respect to my practice.

However, aspects of the plan, as it was naively presented me, didn’t feel right. My sales guy thought that with the investment we were contemplating, I’d add two clients per week, upon generating scores of inquiring calls or e-mails to my website. He seemed to think that generating volume was my primary need; he seemed to have an idea (perhaps after talking to one or two other therapist/social worker types) of the turnover of customers in my niche market, and of the value of customer feedback in generating further business. I had to say that his paradigm (now there’s a word in fashion) was an awkward fit with the model I was practicing. In a minute, I schooled him on the basics: taking on a new client isn’t just about filling an available time-slot. It’s about finding the right person: does the prospective client’s problem fit my scope of practice? Are that person or persons’ needs a fit with my experience and qualifications? Are they committed to a process that entails continuity, or are they looking for some quick advice, or to “get things of their chest”? More privately, do I have the mental space and energy to absorb in my mind the life (with all of its cast of extras) of this person?

“Got it,” said my guy. I think he did get it, actually, just before our connection disappeared. I was about to add that educated consumers don’t scroll or troll through Yelp to find good reviews of therapists. We’re not like restaurants, I’d have haughtily declared. In fairness, he’d sort of anticipated this response, having made a point about visibility being as or more important than the reviews themselves. Yelping, I might have added, seems to connote negative reviews, complaints, for “yelp” is onomatopoeia for pain, isn’t it? Furthermore, it’s not as though therapists can speak back to bad reviews, offering rebuttals, the way that other businesses might—because of confidentiality limitations. In that way, therapists, like lawyers and doctors, I suppose, are vulnerable in a one-way customer service dialogue. Marshall Field, the groundbreaking retailer of a century ago, gave the western world a now chestnut phrase to describe this unequal arrangement: “The customer is always right”. Not only did he seem to think this just, he offered it as a paradigm for good business.

I understand that businesses like Uber and Lyft are challenging this paradigm by providing a way for drivers to rate passengers just as passengers can rate drivers. This isn’t the first time these two precocious businesses have upset the apple carts. Think about it: think about the businesses, like mine, that rely upon or demand standards as codified by an overseeing authority. Uber and Lyft are bucking that system, implying that what they offer doesn’t need standards, doesn’t need training. And who’s to complain? Taxi-drivers? If this were happening in my business—if “life coaches”, for example, were taking over (via Yelp, no doubt) the therapy game—I’d dust off my protesting/marching shoes and say something. My forbidden-fruit friend seemed to bristle at Uber and Lyft’s latest game-changer. He seemed to think this a problem, saying it compromised privacy, this capacity to post a review of the consumer—that too much in our world is compromising privacy. Didn’t I agree, he asked, thinking me an indiscriminating advocate of this all-important value? I surprised him. Turn around is fair play, I said, thinking that customers have enjoyed an advantage for too long. After all, a consumer can do a lot of things to hurt a provider of services, with impunity: boycott (also de rigeur), spread a negative word, “yelp” in pain a bad review. What’s that thing a defensive retailer might say? “If you don’t like it, no one’s forcing you to buy it”. But until Uber and Lyft’s revisions, no one had truly altered the rules of dialogue between consumer and service provider. It’s been a while, I think, since “We have the right to refuse service” has taken center stage in a public debate (I guess I think the issue of gay people and wedding cakes a side-skirmish). Now I think that tact is pointing the way to something big.

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