Yelp: Sympathy for the Devil’s Minions

There’s nothing quite like dealing with a “retention specialist” at a big company.

If you’ve ever been on the phone with Comcast, or AT&T or any number of very large companies you’re probably already facepalming and groaning. I recently got to have my own verbal sparring courtesy of Yelp.

Since launching my new hyperlocal merchant focus back in 2015 I’ve learned a tremendous number of things about local businesses. One of the things I’ve learned is the absolutely insane number of sales calls that Yelp floods small business owners with. How many calls seems contingent on the type of business and how visible the business is in the local community, but in some cases the number of calls isĀ daily.

What’s worse is that they never seen to have any concept of when to call. Even when I try to call businesses I’ve been referred to I try to be reasonable enough to call them at what would logically be off-hours. One restaurant I work with kept getting increasingly aggravated because they were getting Yelp calls in the middle of their packed lunch hour service.

I’m not going to mince words: You should not work with Yelp. It’s an open secret that this company is basically a protection racket. They will bury negative reviews if you advertise with them. Even if you don’t have negative reviews they will come after you mercilessly to buy their advertising and won’t take no for an answer in a gauche manner that I’ve discussed before. I’ve defended Yelp before in the context of online being reviews themselves being valuable, but Yelp has taken the piss to the point where their shady behavior has long since tipped the scales.

More importantly, buying advertising on Yelp is both expensive and pointless. For any local merchant their ads are bank-breakingly expensive to the tune of starting at $500 per month, and their ads are placed on Yelp’s internal search engine. Yelp conveniently doesn’t keep analytics on how many searches are done through the Yelp search function and I got one Yelp rep to admit to me that Yelp’s search engine is pay to play. Basically, the more advertisements you buy, the more your searches appear at the top of results for restaurants or your business category.

In other words, you have to invest a huge amount of money in a review aggregation service that can’t provide concrete data on what the return is or even how many potential customers you reach.

When it comes to Yelp, I’ve seen enough E-mail and phone pitches that the cycle is almost predictable at this point:

  1. Yelp rep calls and confirms where the business is. Cue the “Oh, I used to live in that area! I went to school/used to work there so I know the business climate.” (Whatever that even means)
  2. Yelp rep just happens to notice that you have a Yelp page and asks why you aren’t taking advantage of their services.
  3. If you express skepticism or decline the Yelp rep proceeds to continuously ask “how we can make you say yes” to try and probe for weak points.
  4. Say no enough times, Yelp rep shifts gears, suggests your competitors are benefiting from Yelp if you aren’t using them actively.
  5. Say you’re fine with your Yelp page as is enough time, Yelp rep shifts tactics again, expresses mock shock at how you don’t want to take advantage of these incredible opportunities.
  6. Yelp rep eventually is forced to give up after exhausting all possible avenues. This assumes you haven’t hung up or just brushed them off, which the Yelp rep will take as the “It wasn’t an outright no” excuse to call you back another day.

Just recently one client of mine was frustrated with the daily Yelp calls to the degree that she asked me to handle it. I agreed, and within literally minutes of receiving my phone number the rep, who I will call Jane, called me. She called back after I wasn’t able to pick up at the time.

From the onset Jane followed almost the exact formula I mentioned above. She was pushy and continually demanded to know how she could help in a manner that would make us buy Yelp’s services. It’s a familiar psychological trick; she wasn’t trying to sell, she was trying to help. Perhaps my favorite part of this early phase of the conversation was where I told her more than once that we weren’t interested in Yelp’s services, whereupon she would say “I understand that, but…”

I brought up at one point that if Jane really understood we wouldn’t still be talking.

The one point where Jane did start testing my patience was during one of my unconditional nos. She aggressively asked what our marketing plan was in lieu of Yelp. I diplomatically told her that the marketing plan of the business was none of her business.

Another memorable point where she insisted that she wasn’t trying to compete with me for the business’ attention. I’m sure this was a way to obfuscate the real issue and maybe present the sales rep as more disarming.

Finally, she expressed shock – her own word, shock – that we were running a business without taking advantage of Yelp’s business opportunities (see step 5 above). I managed to extract a guarantee that she wouldn’t call again and that we would call them if we needed their help. Needless to say neither I nor the client have any plans to do so. The client was relieved that I’d handled it.

If this or the now infamous Ryan Block Comcast call aggravated you just be hearing about it, you’re not alone. Watch the YouTube video of the Comcast call and you’ll see plenty of commentators fantasizing about popping the service rep in the jaw.

Even after 15 minutes, I wasn’t angry or annoyed at Jane though.

These stories are recurring for a reason. These issues aren’t limited to one overly aggressive service rep, or a bad manager enforcing sales quotas, or even an entire department. They’re so consistent because this style of aggressive hard marketing is systemic within companies as rotten as Comcast or Yelp. They’re directives imposed by senior management; one former Comcast anonymously reported the Ryan Block call as a typical interaction.

“They make you do that,” our source said. “You have to follow a certain path. And if you don’t follow it, you can be written up. They’ll make up something like, ‘You didn’t ask this question,’ or ‘You should have done that.’ That was an average retention representative he was on the phone with,” our source said in reference to the call.

As ridiculous as some of Jane’s question were, I’m sure she had a flow chart laid out in front of her and that if she hadn’t asked me each of these questions she would have been written up or reprimanded. I’m also sure had she stopped calling before exhausting all possible attack avenues she’d have similarly been written up. She and other reps’ pay is also likely based heavily on commission, further incentivizing the hyper-aggressive pursuing of customers Jordan Belfort-style.

When it comes to situations like this we need to stop yelling at – or in some cases pranking or trolling – sales reps because problems trickle down from the top. When we “punch back” at these people all we’re really doing is barking at those lowest on the totem pole: Sales reps, community managers, and retention “specialists” who often deal with as much crap from the top brass as they do actual would-be customers.

When expressing anger one should never single out individuals as righteous as it can feel. Especially when they’re sales reps or community managers with no real power. Even blaming singular high ranking people is usually a misfire; rarely is a crappy sales system the architect of one person, even if it feels good to put a human face on the things that upset us. Aiming your gun at a company is entirely fair; aiming them all at one person is going to end up as little more than bullying.

It’s why nothing really changed after the Ryan Block call. Comcast was able to do its song and dance about how “embarrassed” that it was that it got caught by someone with a platform like Ryan Block, fire someone for good PR and keep moving. Of course, all this did was absolve the company itself of blame despite the perpetually low opinion of Comcast. Because the single employee became the story.

Change comes from pressure on institutions as a whole. Remain indignant, but make sure to aim your anger carefully and not single out someone who’s under just as much stress as you likely are. Just think about this before telling a Yelp sales rep where they can stick their services.