Answer the following questions truthfully: how many times have you left a restaurant after a great meal and vowed to write a positive review online? Or got so angry at poor service that you made it your mission to drag that company’s name through the mud using just your computer and an internet connection?
Most of us have felt that way at some point. But how many times have you actually written that review? Not often, I bet.
A study in 2014 by Duncan Simester, professor of marketing at MIT, and Eric Anderson, director of the Center for Global Marketing Practice, found that at one clothing retailer they looked at, just 15 out of every 1,000 customers wrote a review of their shopping experience. That’s quite shocking in itself. But the worst part is that those 15 people are influencing the other 985; and the pair found that “lower ratings in a review are associated with reduced demand for that product over the next 12 months”.
There are several issues here. How do retailers get more people to provide crucial feedback on their business? How can they trust that those reviews will be genuine and not just disgruntled ex-employees or rivals? And how do customers know where they can shop with confidence?
Step forward TruRating. Founder Georgina Nelson (above), like most internet users, was aware of the reach and consumer power of Trip Advisor and Yelp, but also spotted that the two ratings giants were missing a trick – letting customers easily comment on a retailer as they were shopping.
TruRating, which graduated from Microsoft Accelerator – the global initiative that helps entrepreneurs build great companies – in June last year, has developed a system that allows people to rate companies using a chip-and-PIN handset. Before customers enter their PIN, they are asked to rate, for example, the food they have just eaten by pressing a number between zero and nine. It’s one question and one button before the customer then enters their PIN and pays as usual.
“We are giving businesses ratings that they can make decisions on,” said Nelson. “Companies currently hear about complaints days and weeks after the event, so they can’t act on it. Those firms also don’t know whether to take action on that feedback because it might be from a rival or a disgruntled ex-employee.
“Our system is near to real-time and getting the views of 88pc of all customers across a variety of age ranges and social groups. We are getting the voice of the silent majority. We collect how much the customer has spent with a business and data about the products. It is affecting companies at key levels – in some instances these firms are giving bonuses to staff based on TruRating data.”
There are obvious benefits for companies, but there are also positive aspects for customers, too. TruRating also runs a customer recommendation website, which offers accurate, quick and honest opinions about retailers across the UK.
“Our customer site means people can make decisions really quickly, they don’t have to read lots of comments. If they’re looking or somewhere to eat, they can make a quick decision on a street corner and trust that. That’s what consumers need.”
It’s a very simple idea, and with consumer spending in the UK rising by 12% since 2006, according to the Centre for Retail Research, and the total amount spent in the retail sector last year hitting £339bn, Retail Economics has revealed, the opportunities are huge.
At the moment the sector is dominated by TripAdvisor and Yelp, which have been operating since 2000 and 2004 respectively and are visited by hundreds of millions of people every month.
A recent report on the hospitality industry by Chris K. Anderson, at Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, and Saram Han, Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, found that an increase in a hotel’s TripAdvisor rating is reflected in a rise in revenue. It also revealed that that revenue levels climbed as the number of TripAdvisor responses increased.
Meanwhile, a study by University of California economists Michael Anderson and Jeremy Magruder in The Economic Journal found that an extra half-star rating on Yelp resulted in restaurants selling out 19 percentage points (49%) more frequently.
TripAdvisor and Yelp are obviously very big, powerful and influential. So how (and why) did Nelson, at the time a new mum living in Kingston, decide to take them on and get involved in an industry that hasn’t always treated women equally?
“My background is as a lawyer, I never learnt coding,” she said. “I wanted to, because it’s a language of power. I felt at a huge disadvantage, and I was effectively working blind because I didn’t understand the tech. Luckily I hired a technology-minded person early on to help me.
“Women are under-represented in the tech sector. I’ve sat in funding meetings where the potential investor hasn’t asked me any financial or strategic questions, they’ve asked the other men in the room.
“I was at Which? [the consumer advice company] and was involved in their technology policy [when I got the idea for TruRating]. A colleague was setting up a review website for Which? and was talking about problems around who was commenting on sites.
“I saw an opportunity. I wanted to take away the barrier between customers and retailers but retain the anonymity. I wanted to ask customers a question while they were engaged with a company.
“I spent a few months marching the streets of Kingston, taking my idea to retailers. They all said, ‘yes, we need this’.”
Most of the well-known and loved high streets brands and large supermarkets in the UK are in active discussions with TruRating to start pilot schemes in the next few months.
Crucially, Nelson’s company is tackling the feedback issue from both sides – retail and payment provider. She has also teamed up with major payment companies such as Ingenico, Global Payments and Tender Retail, and is in talks with an acquirer in Australia.
Her team of six founding members in 2014 has now grown to 58, with TruRating taking on a new employee every week in one of four offices – London, Sydney, Toronto and Atlanta.
A key foundation for that growth has been Microsoft Ventures. Microsoft runs seven schemes across the world, offering the tools, resources, knowledge and expertise start-ups need to scale their business, bring innovative services to market and reach new customers.
“It was amazing,” Nelson said. “Microsoft opened the bonnet on our company and provided advice on funding and finances. They introduced us to prospective funders and venture capitalists, as well as retail contacts such as Starbucks and CostCo. They can provide office space, too, although we already had that. We also had experts from Azure spending time with our developers in workshops.”
Azure, Microsoft’s cloud platform, has been crucial to TruRating’s success, Nelson said. “Azure is important to us because we partner with the biggest payment firms and retailers in the world and they are concerned with security. We deal with product data, so it’s also about how quickly we can get that data onto our website. With Azure we can do that.
“Microsoft has been constantly trying to help us, and they don’t take an equity stake, which many companies do. It’s all about, ‘how can we help you? We want you to be a success’.”
Warwick Hill, CEO-in-Residence at Microsoft Accelerator London, said: “Microsoft Accelerator London empowers entrepreneurs to achieve their goals via a tailored business curriculum combined with curated customer access.
“During their time within the accelerator, we worked with the TruRating team to achieve greater operational efficiencies while scaling into new data centre geographies. We are very proud of TruRating’s subsequent achievements as they become a big-data service provider within the retail sector.”
Now, in Nelson’s battle with TripAdvisor and Yelp, it’s all about scale and growing as fast as possible.
“We partner with everybody, so it’s about how quickly we can tie up with deals and get to market.”
Then it’s over to you, to tell those retailers what you really think.