Other than an occasional blog-rant about customer service – which I tend to think of as a personal PSA – I don’t do much online reviewing. Nor do I take online reviews all that seriously.
I’m much more likely to trust a friend’s recommendation for a book-movie-restaurant-painter-plumber-hotel than I am to trust the huddled masses yearning to grind their axes. I do occasionally read reviews, and am always amazed when someone goes on a tear about the terrible service at one of our go-to restaurants, or raves about the food at a joint that we found serves slop avec glop.
Recently, I was shocked to read some commentary on a physician that we very much like and admire. Sure, anyone reading her words would get the impression that the reviewer was more than slightly unhinged.
So I wouldn’t base my MD choices on online reviews, either.
I think the bias is almost always to yelp if you’ve had a negative experience rather than a positive one, so I always take what I read with a full shaker of salt. Especially if they’re anonymous.
The one exception: if someone says a hotel had bed bugs…
On balance, though, I’m completely in the ‘meh’ camp on online reviews.
But if you’re an online reviewer, you may want to exercise some caution if your reviews are going to skew negative.
As one Utah woman found out.
A few years back, Jen Palmer’s husband ordered some small Christmas gifts from an outfit called Kleargear, which specializes in gag gifts/stocking stuffers. (While not exactly selling a little something in the pale blue box, Kleargear ware can get plenty pricey. You can fork over $895 for a “machine gun” the shoots rubber bands.)
Anyway, whatever got ordered never got sent.
While the Palmers weren’t on the financial hook – PayPal canceled the transaction after 30 days on no action – Jen Palmer wanted to know what had happened to their order. So she tried callilng Kleargear to get an answer. She was met with a not unusual situation: she never got to talk to a human being. As someone who has, more than once, screamed into the void that all I wanted to do was speak with a real person, I sympathize with Palmer’s urge to vent a bit o’ spleen:
So frustrated, she turned to the internet writing a negative review on ripoffreport.com.
"There is absolutely no way to get in touch with a physical human being," it says. And it accuses kleargear.com of having "horrible customer service practices." (Source: KUTV)
And that was that, or so the Palmers thought.
Then, three years after the spleen vent, Palmer’s husband, who had placed the initial order:
…got an email from Kleargear.com demanding the post be removed or they would be fined. Kleargear.com says Jen violated a non-disparagement clause. It turns out that, hidden within the terms of sale on Kleargear.com there is a clause that reads:
"In an effort to ensure fair and honest public feedback, and to prevent the publishing of libelous content in any form, your acceptance of this sales contract prohibits you from taking any action that negatively impacts kleargear.com, its reputation, products, services, management or employees."
How what Jen Palmer wrote could be construed as “libelous”, and why Kleargear would come after anyone who makes a disparaging comment – as opposed to reaching out to that person to make nice – are beyond me.
The clause goes on to say if a consumer violates the contract they will have 72 hours to remove your post or face a $3500 fine. If that fine is not paid, the delinquency will be reported to the nation's credit bureaus.
Wow, just wow.
Jen Palmer’s first reaction was to get a hold of ripoffreport.com and have her comments removed.
She was not, of course, thrilled with Kleargear, but her spleen had long since been vented, and any anger she had over missing out on a melting snowman, or whatever piece of crap her husband had ordered for her, had long since ebbed. But who wants to pay a $3.5K “fine”? And who has the time and psychic energy to fight back?
That would have been that if the aptly named ripoffreport.com hadn’t told her that she’d have to pay them $2K to delete her post. (Honestly, are Kleargear and ripoffreport in a mutual protection racket?)
Meanwhile, the Palmers learned that their credit rating had been dinged by Kleargear. Which is getting in the way of things like a new car and furnace repairs.
Jen Palmer turned to a local TV show, Get Gephardt, to take the case on, which found that Kleargear.com was a frequent flyer on the old complaint boards, and had received a “F rating” a few years back (now upgraded to a “B”) from the Better Business Bureau.
When we tried calling Kleargear.com we were unsuccessful in getting through to anybody.
Which is pretty funny, considering this was Jen Palmer’s gripe to begin with.
By email, a person who did not identify him or herself defended the $3500 charge referring again to Kleargear.com's terms of sale. As for Jen being threatened - remove the post or face a fine - the company said that was not blackmail but rather a, "diligent effort to help them avoid [the fine]."
You have to sell an awful lot of LED shoe laces to ear that kind of profit.
GetGephardt asked Jeff Hunt, a Salt Lake City first amendment lawyer, what he thought about Kleargear’s fine print. He’s pretty sure that, if push came to shove and someone decided to see Kleargear in court:
"I have a serious question about whether a court would enforce that kind of covenant because it's massively over broad and against public policy," Hunt said.
Meanwhile, the Palmers are appealing the credit bureau that’s given them a black eye.
As for Kleargear, now that their “non-disparagement clause” has been aired, methinks they’ve got a bigger reputational problem on their hands than just someone griping about piss-poor customer service.
Still, if there’s no such thing as bad publicity, a lot more folks now know where to go when they need wind-up crawling fingers. (Act now: they’re on clearance for $0.45.
If I need cool stuff, however, I will be shopping Archie McPhee.
Lederhosen unicorn ornaments, anyone?