Online Review Systems and the Service Economy

I’ve already had a couple of recommendations to look at Angie’s List and Checkbook Magazine since posting earlier today about my homeowner blues. There have been some interesting discussions about Angie’s List in the past six months, particularly at Greg Knaddison’s blog.

Part of what makes that discussion interesting is that it peels back a hidden layer of the service economy in the online era. It’s clear that both small and large businesses have tried, with varying success, to manipulate online flows of information, while others are uneasy, angry or clueless about the potential impact of the online world on their livelihoods. I think that probably was the case in a pre-Internet era as well: some contractors knew how to manipulate the Yellow Pages and various social networks, others didn’t. However, the flows of information are now more rapid, more powerful in their effect, and more heterogenous in their composition.

It’s also clear to me reading the comments at Knaddison that something like Angie’s List is one of those places where very different kinds of online users intersect, where people who have four blogs and make all their calls using Skype are reading and contributing right alongside users who only know the Internet as a place to read email, see videos of cats playing pianos on YouTube and use Angie’s List.

That’s a good thing as far as creating a strong body of reviews and a strong community of users, though I have share some of Greg Knaddison’s doubts about the basic model of the service. However, there are some problems that are common to all review-collation sites, no matter their revenue model, including the kind of trust-based social networks that Knaddison advocates.

I’ve talked about these issues before here with regard to Rate My Professors, for example.

Even the best review sites are usually very thin in the kinds of information they provide. (Of course, sometimes a huge accumulation of information is not helpful in making consumer definitions, but is instead the sign of a protracted struggle over the object or service being rated. Look at the books with the most reviews on Amazon, for example.) Any review site can run into trouble with the incentive structure it provides for people to rank their service. With eBay, for example, I’ve found that making a negative comment on a seller (in my case, for failing to send an item) leads to enormous pressure from the seller to withdraw the comment, including the thread of reciprocal attack on your reputation as a buyer.

In particular, getting users who have detailed knowledge of the subject of a review to contribute when they do not have an axe to grind is a real challenge. Epinions, I’ve noticed, has a few star “expert reviewers” who pop up in some durable-good categories, but not in sufficient density in many cases to create anything like meaningful information for decision-making.

What you want, it seems to me, is a lot of people who have balanced or mixed experiences with services and goods to contribute to a review site, rather than just people who are highly aggrieved and people who simply say “A +++++ great seller!” or some such. I don’t think anyone has yet figured out how to reliably get that kind of information into an aggregated central location, either online or offline.

Moreover, it seems to me that this kind of information source wouldn’t just be a guide for consumers, but also a way for a national economy that has become centered on service to think about how to improve the quality and productivity of service goods without looking to expensive consultancies and middlemen firms. Right now, there is almost no way for ordinary, non-aggrieved, constructively critical information to pass from customers to smaller service-oriented businesses. The first pest control contractor we saw, for example, is from a fairly local company. The estimate was fairly well-priced, but the exterminator was so brusque and hostile in his manner and so unwilling to answer questions that I couldn’t really form any opinion about the potential reliability of his service. It would be good for him and me if that information could pass between us anonymously, without me demanding anything from him or him feeling that the assessment could damage his commercial reputation.

I think the first group or company to figure out how to combine the best of bottom-up content-creation and some kind of authority-driven or editorial practice to create dense and high quality information about service providers and consumer goods is going to make a lot of money. In fact, that’s the kind of thing that newspapers should be looking at as a replacement for the revenues they used to make from classified ads. The kind of reputation capital they could lend to a really well-designed system might make a big difference. I don’t think what’s out there now has achieved the necessary mix of features, usability and informational critical mass, however: it won’t be enough to just partner up with Craig’s List, Angie’s List, Epinions or any existing service.

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11 Responses to Online Review Systems and the Service Economy

  1. withywindle says:

    1) I haven’t hired a plumber, a carpenter, etc. more than a handful of times in my life for each trade, and in a good world, I won’t have to more than another handful. I’m never going to have a data set sufficient to make an informed recommendation. Isn’t this true of a lot of other people too?

    2) That year of shop we should force all our children to study in high school really should include basic plumbing, carpentering, household handyman knowledge, etc. Review sites are a poor second-best to knowing how to fix things around the house ourselves.

    3) Why not set up service co-ops? If it’s too late for me to learn every household skill, maybe I could learn just one in my copious spare time, and barter my amateur skills with other academics. Or maybe the model would be home-schooling, where different parents teach different classes. Now, appalled as I am at the thought of leaving the plumbing to another history professor, why not give it a whirl? This is something where crunchy cons and crunchy libs could get together, as we relearn the handyman skills of our forefathers, and emancipate ourselves from the dictatorship of the labor aristocracy.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I’m certainly learning a lot of this stuff for myself, but another thing I’ve learned in this house is how dangerous somehow who knows a bit and is determined to do-it-yourself can be. Some of our biggest problems in this house are bad DIY work that isn’t immediately obvious (made worse by the fact that the previous owners always chose the cheapest materials, etc.).

    Take the standpipe in the front. That repair is going to involve trenching out around it, filing the appropriate papers with the city, taking off a partially collapsed standpipe from a terracotta drainpipe, and connecting a new pipe. Needs to be done in a day. I have a reasonably high opinion of my ability to learn to do things myself, but that’s likely beyond me, or more importantly, the consequences of screwing it up would incur costs well beyond what I might save by doing it myself.

    Things I think I can do and have done myself include simple plumbing, painting, pressure washing the mold off the roof tiles, seeding my own lawn, maintaining my yard, replacing door knobs, some furniture repair, building a treehouse, building a new pathway with stepping stones. I think with some effort I could learn to do simple electrical work, though the risk of injury in that case means you have to go carefully. Most of these things are things that at least some of my neighbors would hire someone else to do.

    Things I wouldn’t trust myself to do or where the labor time and difficulty makes hiring someone a more efficient solution: major plumbing, reshingling the house’s roof, resurfacing the driveway, building a patio design I have in mind, any major electrical work, anything dealing with the gas appliances in the home. There are things I’m not *allowed* by law to do, such as apply Termidor around the house to kill termites, which is fine by me.

    Are you a homeowner? If so, I have a hard time believing that you’re certain that you’re only going to hire a plumber or anything else more than once or twice in your life.

  3. withywindle says:

    Co-op. Urban weenie. No lawn, no treehouse, no pathway, though I suspect we have a roof. You’re right, I have of course been forgetting all the times the co-op has hired people to deal with the exterior of the building; all we’ve been directly responsible for is the inside of the apartment. But we haven’t had to do too much major in the last six years–plumber twice, laundry machine repairman once, I think. Clearly we’re living on borrowed time.

  4. jim says:

    I think you’re right to make the comparison to RMP. I’d add Wikipedia to the list, too. There are some articles in Wikipedia which are models of accuracy; there are others which are off the wall. The problem for the naive user is he doesn’t know which are which. RMP is surprisingly accurate on some people; abusive on others. But unless we know the teachers involved, we can’t tell whether RMP is accurate or not. I’m sure Angie’s List is a wonderful guide to some vendors; I’m sure it’s wrong about others. But I don’t know how we distinguish one from the other — or how your proposed editor would do so.

  5. Western Dave says:

    Ah, Withy, you are about to enter year 7 aka, the year everything breaks at once. For us it is the dishwasher, the dryer, and the washing machine. Most of these involve repairs to the electronics that even repair folks can’t fix. In the case of the washing machine, we were able to check at Sears’s review site to confirm that it was a lost cause in terms of fixing and to find a strategy for dealing with replacement: writing Sears about our disappointment that the damn thing didn’t last and thus getting a couple of hundred bucks off the new one.

  6. paul spencer says:

    I’m glad to write that withywindle and I can agree on something 100%. Service co-ops are the way to go. The problem, as with all development, is that it takes time to organize, money to cover the mistakes needed to learn the lessons, and time to coordinate. There is rarely a substitute for a paid, dedicated organizer/coordinator.

    I was involved in 5 co-ops in the 1960s and 1970s. One survives to this day – the Lexington Food Co-op in Buffalo, NY. Which one had a paid, dedicated, continuous coordination functionary (different persons, of course, over the years)? Why, the Lexington Food Co-op.

    As to the main topic – again, withywindle hits it right out of the park. Shop courses in middle and high school are an obvious and major part of the solution. If nothing else, you can be a smarter consumer of services. My only amendment would be that a minimum of two years of such course work – and plenty of “Labs” – is needed to actually imprint some of the basic skills.

    Back to Tim’s list of can-dos and won’t-dos – his is a very practical division for persons with basic skills and abilities. My suggestions would be to: 1) try to find service people for the larger jobs who will use you as simple labor in order to gain knowledge; and 2) push yourself a little toward the jobs that you think are more difficult.

    Last recommendations – watch the DIY network shows and visit their website. They are very step-by-step; and, if one show glosses over some aspect, a related program may fill in the missing details. There are other lists for specific problems/fields – for instance, installing a wood stove or a geothermal heat pump system – that give enough information to be able to make a reasonably intelligent assessment of multiple quotations from potential contractors.

  7. withywindle says:

    Thank you for the kind words!–glad to know that people share some of my wild ideas. An addendum: how about electronics repair? I depend insanely on my computer, printer, scanner, etc.; is it possible to teach any sort of electronics repair at the high school level, such that you would dare muck around with a circuit board? I have this vague sense that more CS-oriented geeks do tinker with their computers, in ways that would leave me with a fried memory, so maybe even us humanities people could learn enough about computer service not to be totally helpless when a breakdown happens. Or maybe not; just tossing out the idea.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    BTW, one thing I found out looking at our township’s plumbing site is that the standpipe repair, even if I were foolish enough to attempt it, is actually illegal for me to undertake–certified “master plumbers” only.

    I’m interested in co-ops too, but I feel as if these are the kind of thing that either happens because of the good fortune of a certain number of people being friends and neighbors at the right time, or it doesn’t happen, that it can’t be *made* to happen simply because it’s sensible.

  9. paul spencer says:

    The standpipe thing is a bit of a boondoggle for the union guys in that the older ones are typically cast iron monsters with “oakum”-filled joints. It actually is the kind of repair that should only be undertaken by experienced hands, but it’s an overkill arrangement in the first place. The modern vent systems are pvc or abs plastic and about half the diameter of the old ones – point being that they’re much easier to repair or install.

    Your comment about co-ops is fairly accurate. Having a suitable community makes them work easily. I started a food co-op in Austin in 1967 or 68 (can’t remember which) called the Milo Minderbinder Memorial Co-op. It took off running and was very successful for several years, essentially because of our hippie/commie community there.

    However, they can also be “made” to work, given the right organizers/coordinators. It’s a difficult balance, though, between the drive and dedication on the one hand and the diplomacy on the other.

  10. I’ve got limited trust in ebay feedback–aside from pressure from vendors against leaving negative feedback, they make it easier to leave positive feedback than negative. I don’t buy from anyone who has less than 98% positive feedback–that seems to work fairly well.

    I got good results in finding a roofer by asking neighbors who they were satisfied with.

  11. Polywood says:

    Power Reviews has an interesting concept of classifying reviewers as “Verified Purchasers”, “Industry Insiders”, “Unverified”, & such. They also allow to classify your background in the sport, for example in golf they would have classifications like, Weekend Duffer, Low handicap, zero handicap, etc…..

    Review sites will continue to improve. I noticed ebay is letting people review the actual product instead of just the seller now. It will continue to evolve and improve.

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