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    Why ranting on Yelp is the wrong way to complain about awful service

    Ticked off about a lousy meal or surly service? Before trashing the business online, try telling someone who can actually fix the problem.

    mark matcho for the boston globe

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    IN 1993, I WENT ON my first tropical vacation. OK, it was Bermuda, so it was subtropical, but that did nothing to dampen my excitement. During the flight, my anticipation grew as I looked over the brochure from the travel agent showing the inn where my girlfriend and I would be staying as part of our prepaid package. The coral-colored, white-roofed Palm Reef Hotel featured balconied waterfront rooms and provided British-style afternoon tea service.

    When we checked in, I tried to mask my disappointment at how much the Palm Reef appeared to have aged since its glam photo shoot for that brochure. So what if the lobby furniture was shabby and some of the walls were crumbling? I reminded myself that we would be spending most of our time at the beach. Then the front desk clerk mumbled something about how the hotel’s air conditioning system “just” broke, before she slid us a printed 8½-by-11 sheet conveying the same message and offering us a complimentary cocktail for the inconvenience. The sheet was frayed at the corners and looked as if it had been mimeographed at some point during the Carter administration. There was clearly nothing new about the Palm Reef’s A/C problem.

    Things got worse when we entered our room. Instead of looking over the Atlantic, the view was of an alley where busted beach umbrellas and cracked terra cotta planters made their eternal rest. I ended up losing one-fourth of our four-day stay fuming on the phone to various travel representatives until they finally agreed to move us to a good hotel.

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    This is what I love about travel now, in the age of TripAdvisor: The relentless scrutiny of its army of volunteer reviewers has helped put dumps like the Palm Reef out of business, or at least shamed them into cleaning up their act.

    TripAdvisor, Yelp, and other review platforms protect us from ever again having to fly truly blind. There is also growing evidence of their corollary benefits. Many hotels are using negative TripAdvisor reviews to guide the changes they make during renovation projects. And a working paper by researchers at Boston University and Harvard finds that Yelp reviews can be even more effective than city health department ratings at busting restaurants for visible violations such as unclean tables and cockroaches.

    I mention all of this so you won’t get the wrong impression when I tell you that if we don’t get things under control, these wonderful, omnipresent online reviews could end up ruining the customer experience for us all.

    As we become increasingly reliant on review platforms and social media, more of us are using them to air our grievances about a business with the entire world before airing them with, you know, the actual business.

    You can see this in those aching replies that business owners and managers post on Yelp and TripAdvisor in response to one-star slams about everything from cold soup to bland chicken to noisy hotel rooms. If you had only shared your complaint with us at the time, we would have been delighted to warm your soup, or season your chicken, or move you to a quieter room.

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    Granted, some customers have always taken the passive-aggressive route of venting to everyone except the service provider. I’d wager that at least a few of those Paleolithic paintings of animals that cover the walls in the prehistoric caves of Lascaux, France, are actually pictorial complaints from cavemen furious that their stag meat was too sinewy.

    This is clearly an old problem, but it has gotten immeasurably worse.

    Talk to any restaurant owner or innkeeper today and you’ll hear endless laments about customers who smiled and replied “fine” when asked how their meal or stay was, only to post a one-star takedown 20 minutes after leaving the premises.

    For me, the tipping point came a few weeks ago, when I was scanning my Twitter feed and encountered this tweet: “Uber driver, your 78 degree temperature just cost you [a] star.”

    Based on his previous posts, this tweeter seems like a very bright, nice guy. I couldn’t help but wonder, though: Before he involved me and the rest of his followers in his climate-control beef, did he try leaning forward and involving the driver?

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    Business owners are increasingly fighting back, none more aggressively than Gabe Killian, the “mixed martial arts journalist” who recently opened a pop-up restaurant in Los Angeles. Killian admitted to the food site Eater that he threatened in private messages to knock unconscious a certain Yelper who gave his place a bad review, and called anyone who objects “a giant, politically correct, millennial pussy.” We need to tackle this problem before merchant vigilantism gains traction — and so that Gabe Killian can return his focus to the vital First Amendment–protected work of MMA journalism.

    Keep in mind that in calling out this passive-aggressive behavior, I am in no way referring to people who post negative reviews after they try a direct appeal. If you give a business the chance to make things right and the owner or manager refuses, I say, go right ahead and share your fury with the world. We customers should not have to lower our standards, and businesses that won’t do the right thing deserve to be exposed.

    What I am calling for, quite simply, is a modified social compact for the mobile era: If you see something, say something — to the provider first, before looping in the rest of us.

    If you don’t at least try the direct route, you might want to interrogate your own motivations. Are you looking for resolution? Or just retribution?

    * * * *

    mark matcho for the boston globe

    In 1995, a 22-year-old fresh out of college went door-to-door in Columbus, Ohio, trying to persuade people to offer feedback on local carpenters, plumbers, and other home-improvement service providers. Then she sat at a card table in a rented 100-square-foot office and waited for the phone to ring.

    When people called asking for a recommendation of someone to, say, clean their gutters, Angie Hicks flipped through her notes to find any feedback she had received from Columbus residents about gutter-cleaning companies. Then she read the caller all the reviews over the phone.

    That was the start of Angie’s List, the rating service that long ago moved online and, more recently, changed its paid subscription model to offer free reviews. Angie’s List now has more than 10 million reviews nationwide.

    Hicks tells me that in the early days, she would often get angry calls from service pros when they learned one of her subscribers had given them a negative review. “It would really throw me,” she says. In time, she grew more confident and began telling service pros that they could win over prospective customers by showing how they handle complaints. “You can learn a ton about a company if you read a negative report or two,” says Hicks, who is now 45. “Like, how do they respond to difficulties?”

    Although she was often the intermediary between ticked-off customers and providers, Hicks cites an important difference between that experience and the negative reviews that dominate most platforms today. “From day one, we didn’t allow anonymous reviews,” she says. “We likened ourselves to journalists: If you have a story, you need to have a source.” Although reviewers’ identities weren’t revealed to the public, they were disclosed to the business in question. “In order for our service providers to respond intelligently,” she says, “they needed to know who the customer was.”

    If providers refused to try to resolve customer complaints, she says, their ratings would suffer. But it would be unfair not to give them a chance.

    In 2000, in a small office above Kosta’s Pizza in Needham, Steve Kaufer and a couple of friends started TripAdvisor. Back then, the company had nothing to do with consumer reviews. TripAdvisor began as a vertical search engine for travel, linking to articles in newspapers, magazines, guidebooks, and blogs. About a year into the startup, someone suggested allowing users to add their own reviews.

    “The genesis of the company was not around building a site that now has 600 million reviews,” Kaufer says, sitting across from me in TripAdvisor’s 280,000-square-foot headquarters hugging Route 128 in Needham. The gleaming, Google-like complex really is the house that unpaid reviews built.

    It didn’t take long for TripAdvisor’s analytics to show that user reviews were what visitors most wanted. “We’re not dumb,” Kaufer says. “We put those reviews at the top of the page, and that generated more people, leaving more reviews.”

    Kaufer isn’t just the CEO and cofounder. He’s also a customer. Yet when it comes to choosing restaurants and hotels, the 55-year-old says, “It’s not important to me that it’s number 1 or number 2 in any city.” A software engineer by training, Kaufer knows the numbers separating top-rated establishments from their neighbors in TripAdvisor’s rankings are often “infinitesimally small.” If a place makes the first page of results, that’s good enough for him.

    His company puts a premium on the integrity and authenticity of its user reviews. That’s why, Kaufer says, TripAdvisor’s 3,000-person workforce includes a fraud-detection team with several hundred digital detectives and PhDs.

    Still, it is not impossible to fool TripAdvisor. A British journalist did that last year when he started a fake bistro called the Shed at Dulwich and managed to make it, for a time, TripAdvisor’s top-ranked restaurant in London. (The company says its detection process initially missed the Shed stunt because fake reviews are typically tied to a profit motive — a business tries to either boost its own ranking or depress a competitor’s. The journalist behind the Shed wasn’t trying to make money, only hay.)

    I ask Kaufer why so many people now post negative reviews without bringing up their complaint with the establishment. “Oh, I can identify with that,” he says, describing the experience of a server asking, “How was your meal?” Rather than candidly reporting that the chicken was overcooked and possibly inviting drama with the chef coming out to discuss it, Kaufer explains, “I say, ‘Fine,’ and then I leave. And later I might write a review.”

    He admits “that owner has all the reason in the world to be upset that, ‘C’mon, you didn’t even give me a chance to fix it.’” But he suggests that the owner focus on staff retraining instead of self-pity.

    “There are some hoteliers that have an outstanding reputation on TripAdvisor, and one bad, bad review,” he says. “And the hotelier will say, ‘Take it down!’ But what you’ve got to understand is that when travelers can see the good and the little bit of bad, it adds a lot of credibility to the good.”

    I turn the tables and ask Kaufer how he feels when reading a negative anonymous review about TripAdvisor on the workplace review site Glassdoor.

    He stresses that there are lots of positive comments about TripAdvisor on Glassdoor (whose board he sits on), and that he gains insight  from the negative ones. Still, he admits to feeling frustrated when he reads one that says something like “they treat me like I’m just a worker bee.” Posts like that make it much easier for him to empathize with all the hoteliers who complain about feeling blindsided by reviews. “I just wish that employee would have given me the feedback directly,” Kaufer says, “so I could do something about it!”

      * * * *

    03/28/2018 WALTHAM, MA Owner Ali Nowrouzi (cq) poses for a photo at The Grill in Waltham. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
    aram boghosian for the boston globe
    Ali Nowrouzi, owner of The Grill in Waltham, estimates that only about 20 percent of diners will tell him or his staff about a concern before posting a negative review. “Don’t execute us before a trial,” he pleads.

    FOUR YEARS AGO, Ali Nowrouzi opened a restaurant called The Grill, across the street from the movie theater in Waltham, serving the Persian dishes from his childhood in Iran as well as Mediterranean fare. The early positive reviews from diners were a godsend for getting the word out about his new place. But what made the occasional attacks sting more was the surprise factor. “Maybe 20 percent of people will talk to you about a concern they have,” Nowrouzi says. “The rest would rather just leave a review.” He’s found that’s especially true with younger diners. (As my 22-year-old nephew says, “Yelp is for acting tough once you get home.”)

    If a customer brings up a complaint, Nowrouzi has instructed his staff to “do whatever it takes to get them to leave with a smile on their face,” such as taking an entree off the bill or offering free dessert. Not long ago, a customer posted a withering review after ordering from his restaurant through the delivery service Grubhub. She was furious she didn’t get the french fries she assumed came with the meal. Nowrouzi, who gets a text on his phone after any new Yelp review of The Grill is posted, tried contacting that unhappy customer. When he didn’t hear back, he got in his car and delivered a fresh order of the meal, complete with french fries. After no one answered the door, he left the takeout package out front, sending another message to the customer, who eventually took down her negative review.

    “Don’t execute us before a trial,” Nowrouzi pleads.

    The negative reviews that bother him the most are those from people he is certain never even ate in his restaurant. His operation is small enough, and with cameras and an electronic meal-ticketing system, he is confident in his forensic abilities to attach each authentic review to a meal-ticket number in his records. When things don’t match up, he suspects bad intentions, such as sabotage from a competitor.

    These weaponized reviews can do serious damage. “It takes a lot of five-star reviews to make up for one one-star review,” Nowrouzi says. “When I called Yelp to complain, they said, ‘Hey, a three-star rating is good.’ Then again, they themselves have a two-star rating! So many people hate Yelp.”

    Just about every business owner has a chart-topper of a negative review, and Nowrouzi’s involves a young woman who, online, goes by the name Katie Miller. During the winter of 2015, she was a college student renting an apartment near his restaurant. One night, as he was getting ready to close, Nowrouzi says, she charged into the restaurant and accused his staff of interfering with her trash removal. He countered that he had a commercial waste-removal service, but she was hearing none of it. “She leaves at 10,” he recalls. “At 10:30, there’s a review posted calling my restaurant a sh—.” He says the word, but Globe policies prohibit me from repeating it here, unless I’m quoting our current president’s views about Haiti and certain African nations.

    Nowrouzi complained to Yelp, insisting she had never eaten in his restaurant and accusing her of Internet street justice. Only after he involved his lawyer, he says, did the Yelper agree in 2015 to take it down.

    During a recent meeting at his restaurant, I show him a copy of that same review from Katie Miller, which I had found posted on Yelp the day before. He sighs and then allows a slight smile. The game of whack-a-mole will continue.

    I try reaching out to Miller on Facebook and through her real name, but never hear back. She must be busy, I assume, since her recurring roast of The Grill is hardly her only one-star action.

    In a one-star review of the real estate broker she used in New York, she alleges he “lied about every single thing to rent that apartment and receive his commission (which is unproportionally [sic] high compared to other brokers).” In a one-star review of the investment company behind the apartment building, she writes, “It’s hard to find more stupid and challenged people as the employees of this management company. They don’t care about anything and won’t solve your problems. And you WILL have problems.”

    Then there’s Oz Moving and Storage, for which she offers this one-star narrative: “These movers are the worst! They are incredibly slow, stand on sidewalk for hours blabbing and yelling and literally behave like monkeys jumping and throwing things . . . all my things got damaged from being thrown around and jumped on.”

    I bring these complaints to Nancy Zafrani, the general manager for Oz Moving. Her reaction is strikingly similar to Nowrouzi’s, from the long sigh to the suspicions about whether this Katie Miller was ever really a customer. There’s no record of her in the company’s system, either under Katie Miller or her real name, which I provide to Zafrani.

    The 44-year-old Zafrani has worked in the moving business since high school. She argues that while people might be willing to blow off a $12 meal, anyone with a legitimate damage claim almost always wants compensation. “They aren’t going to be satisfied simply by venting on social media.”

    Exaggeration is not uncommon, Zafrani says. “They’re seeking empathy from the general public for the horror they experienced, when it may not be as bad as described.”

    While Oz’s standard practice is to reply publicly to critical reviews, Zafrani says they will sometimes stay mum if a response is likely to inflame the situation. ‘This woman referred to our employees as monkeys, which is incredibly offensive,” she says. “When somebody’s that harsh, they’re usually not going to say, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’”

    Having started in the business when customers found movers only through the Yellow Pages or word-of-mouth referrals, Zafrani appreciates how the company’s positive reviews help spread the word. But two pitfalls of the online review world have left her weary: the growth in people venting online instead of contacting the company directly, and the explosion of what she calls Internet “blackmail.” A couple of times a month, she hears from customers who threaten, “If you don’t give me what I’m asking for, I’m going to post negative reviews everywhere.”

    She says she works hard to resolve problems for disappointed customers. “But if they threaten us with social media, then we’re probably not going to meet their demands,” she says. “Once you start going down that path, you may as well close up shop.”

    * * * *

    mark matcho for the boston globe

    IS IT A GOOD IDEA for service providers to post public replies to negative reviews? Giorgos Zervas, an assistant professor of marketing at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, has studied that question. He and a coauthor found that hotels posting responses saw a 0.12 increase in their “bubble” ratings on TripAdvisor (the company doesn’t traffic in stars, only bubbles). While that might sound modest, Zervas also points out that, for about one-quarter of the hotels in their study sample, the bump was enough for TripAdvisor to round their rating up a half-bubble within six months of their first posted management response. (The average rating hovers around four bubbles.)

    The study’s most surprising finding was that while hotels that began posting responses saw fewer negative reviews, the proportion of long negative reviews actually went up. Zervas speculates that a hotel policy of responding discourages dashed-off, unsupported venting. However, reviewers who know their claims will be rebutted tend to bring their maximum firepower to the gunfight.

    So I ask Zervas, who is a native of Greece, “If your uncle owned a Greek restaurant, would you advise him to post responses to negative reviews?”

    He laughs. “That depends on my uncle! Does he respond thoughtfully or emotionally? But, generally, yes.”

    In his own travels, Zervas appreciates TripAdvisor for offering a convenient and thorough listing of just about all the hotels and restaurants in any city he visits.

    When it comes to reviews, he says, “I look at the lowest-rated reviews first.” He then tries to discern if the reviewer shares his priorities. “Is it one-star because they didn’t like the breakfast buffet or the decor? If so, I don’t care. Is it because of bedbugs? I will stay somewhere else.”

    Bedbugs are exactly what one TripAdvisor reviewer named Rkka9 complained about during a stay last fall at the Wyndham Boston Beacon Hill. “We were disgusted,” read the one-star review. “This was our one-year anniversary as well.”

    Hotel management posted this reply: “I am surprised to see your comments on TripAdvisor instead of contacting the hotel directly. . . . We have rented that room every night with no one mentioning anything about bedbugs. We inspected the room as well and found nothing.”

    In the last couple of years, at least two other travelers posted one-star reviews of this Wyndham property, alleging bedbugs. In fairness, the hotel has many more positive reviews than negatives, and a four-bubble average rating. So did the management response to the bedbug claim call more attention to it?

    “We won’t leave an unhappy guest hanging,” general manager Tom Chmura tells me. “We know 95 percent of travelers today read reviews before they book a trip, so it’s important for us to show that guest, and future guests who may be reading, that we acknowledge and respond to concerns.”

    One way to equalize the situation would be to do what Airbnb does and not only let the customer rate the owner, but also let the owner rate the customer. That two-way approach creates a sort of mutually assured destruction framework that would make most customers think twice before blindsiding a business. But don’t expect to see hotels reviewing their guests on TripAdvisor anytime soon. While Airbnb and Uber control their entire feedback loops, TripAdvisor and Yelp are third-party platforms whose business models rely on attracting as many candid reviews as possible — about the performance of other businesses. These platforms are unlikely to do anything to depress the volume of reviews coming in, whether users offer huzzahs or a whole lot of hating.

    What is behind this vent-first behavior? Kevin Gwinner, a marketing specialist and the business school dean at Kansas State University, invokes something called cognitive appraisal theory. When people have a bad consumer experience, they tend to assess the level of harm — in terms of lost money, time, or pride. That assessment leads to emotions — anger, fear, guilt. And that, in turn, leads either to “problem-focused coping” (going directly to the company) or “emotion-focused coping” (such as downplaying the severity or, in the case of the one-star reviewers, venting before an online audience).

    People who post negative reviews without first seeking redress from the provider, Gwinner says, probably concluded the matter wasn’t worth the hassle of contacting a manager, especially if they feared a draining time-suck of a confrontation.

    Yet if they conclude it’s not worth the hassle, why do they bother posting a fiery review? Some do it because they’re seeking validation from people online. Others do it because they’re seeking revenge, and the public shaming can help them reassert control. Perhaps the biggest appeal of this passive-aggressive route is that it offers a faceless enemy. Research by Rebecca Reczek of Ohio State’s business school finds that people will compete far more aggressively in online auctions against anonymous “others,” who they assume are different from them, than against people identified as being like them. Customers tend to be far more comfortable fuming online about a “faceless” business, she says, than “aggressively complaining to someone face-to-face who might actually be quite similar to them.”

    When going after a faceless entity, the risk of blowback is small. Yet it is not zero. In her research, Lily Lin of Canada’s Simon Fraser University has found that people often ding other consumers for going too far. “Your fellow consumers can provide judgment,” she tells me, “for whether you should be rewarded or punished for your venting.”

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    * * * *

    AFTER ALL MY TALK about what’s wrong with blindsiding businesses, you might have the impression that I don’t complain much as a consumer. My kids could set you straight on that. They’ve had to witness so many lengthy back-and-forths with managers over the years that, by now, they can pretty much tell when one is coming. They’ll flash each other a look that says: We better find a seat. We’re going to be here for a while.

    I know that look, because it’s the same one my siblings and I used to flash when we were kids and our dad was about to admonish a business. Sometimes I even catch myself using my late father’s go-to lines, such as, “Listen, I grew up in business.” My daughters never fail to remind me afterward, “No you didn’t!”

    But my father did. He learned everything he needed to know about customer service from his father, who owned and operated Swidey’s Variety in Fall River for half a century. My grandfather carried many of his customers on credit during the Depression. Many of them never forgot that, and they repaid his generosity with decades of loyalty to his store. But some disappeared soon after Stop & Shop moved into the neighborhood, all to save a few pennies on gallons of milk and cans of beans. Those are the ones my father never forgot.

    For him, price was always secondary. The priority was finding businesses that would genuinely value him as a customer. He would then show his appreciation with incredible loyalty. That’s why, long after CVS, Brooks, and Rite Aid moved into town, we were forbidden from supporting any drugstore besides the independent one with the slightly dusty boxes of Russell Stover chocolates and the kindly owner who wore one of those vintage pharmacist’s coats.

    Even when my father patronized businesses where he didn’t have a longstanding relationship, he expected good service. If he didn’t get it, he never shied away from letting the business know. In my adult life, I have tried to follow his lead. I stick with businesses that value me, and talk them up to friends.

    I grew up in Southeastern Massachusetts, where branches of Benny’s — the small chain of old-fashioned department stores that began in 1924 — were plentiful. I like to think my loyalty helped Benny’s remain open well past its sell-by date. Last summer, I walked into one to buy a lawn mower. A few hours earlier, I had received an e-mail from Amazon offering the very same mower for a blowout price that was $100 less than the price at Benny’s. Undeterred, I told the Benny’s salesman to ring me up. Then he pulled out a disclosure sheet and began summarizing it. “If anything goes wrong with this mower — even if it won’t start when you get it out of the box — you can’t bring it back here,” he said, handing me the address of a third-party repair service. My heart sank.

    I asked for the manager. “I came in today willing to pay you $100 more than Amazon for this same mower,” I told him. “That’s how much I want to see you guys stay afloat. But loyalty works both ways. If you start with this pass-the-buck nonsense, you’re going to be out of business within six months.”

    It turned out to be less than three. In September, Benny’s announced it would close all 31 of its remaining stores.

    When things go wrong, rather than simply taking my business elsewhere, I assume that the owner or manager is like me and would want to hear that feedback, straight from my mouth.

    A few years ago, my wife and I went several times to a new restaurant in Newton called Cook. The food and service were great, and we began recommending it to friends. Then we went again with our daughters, and several of the dishes got screwed up, among other mishaps. I alerted the manager, but she blew it off.

    So I found the e-mail address for owner Paul Turano and told him what had happened — our first experiences that were so good, and the most recent one that was such a mysterious fumble. (For customer service issues like these, I always use my personal e-mail address, not my Globe one.) Turano’s response was pitch perfect. He thanked me for my time and candor, took responsibility for the mistakes, and explained what he was doing to address them. He then mailed me a gift certificate. I’ve been back many times since then, with great results, but never redeemed the gift certificate. His professional, respectful response was thanks enough.

    Of course, it’s much easier to offer this kind of meaningful feedback — and be appreciated for it — when the business is small. With big corporations, we’re all just numbers.

    Veteran consumer advocate and author Christopher Elliott tells me that if big businesses are upset about getting flamed on review platforms, they probably have only themselves to blame. “These multinational conglomerates often view customer service as an opportunity to reduce costs,” he says. Instead of investing in training and empowering agents to resolve problems, they rely on outsourced call centers where low-skill representatives read platitudes from scripts.

    “Often, the only thing that will get these companies to move in the right direction is bad publicity,” Elliott says. “They’ve essentially forced our hand.”

    I’ve been trapped in enough of those maddening, time-wasting “conversations” with outsourced call centers to want to take out my frustration in all-caps screeds on the Internet. But if everybody’s screaming, and the multinationals will do just fine without our tiny slice of business, this kind of venting seldom does much good.

    I’ve had much better luck with corporate complaints by making use of the gold mine of contact information that Elliott has collected for consumers on his website, Elliott.org. Did Hertz rent you a lemon that left you stuck by the side of the road? Send a note with the details to Hertz’s senior director of North American customer care. Did American Airlines leave you stranded in Spokane? Hit up the airline’s vice president of customer relations.

    Elliott doesn’t waste your time with general e-mails. He provides the direct, otherwise unpublished e-mail addresses of executives at most of the biggest corporations in America. As a measure of how accurate his contact info is, Elliott says, he regularly gets cease-and-desist letters from companies demanding that he take it down.

    “Companies tell me these executives are not ‘customer-facing’ so it’s private information. My argument is, if you have a title of ‘vice president of customer service,’ you should be interacting with customers,” he says. “I’ve never taken anything down.”

    Where does he find these unpublished e-mails? He does reporting and has tipsters, but he also relies on the social-climbing tendencies of executives. “They’ll give their personal company e-mail to their country club, and the country club will publish that in its directory and then post a PDF of the directory online.”

    Although he arms customers with tools for self-advocacy, Elliott says he often has to remind people who contact him that the best chance to resolve a situation is in the moment. “If you’re in a hotel, and they put you in a noisy room next to the elevator,” he says, “venting online or contacting me is going to be a lot less effective than talking to the general manager right then and there.”

    I’ve had good results with this direct-to-exec route, using either Elliott.org or my own hunting to find the e-mails for people who have the authority and interest in, as my father would say, “restoring my faith as a customer.” Just in the past month, I’ve done this with UPS and Shutterfly, and received prompt, effective resolution.

    Of course, it doesn’t always work. A few years ago, I bought a Kia from a dealer in Framingham, only to find out, after a small fender bender, that my new car had come with an undisclosed replacement bumper. Feeling misled, I tried the direct route, but neither the dealership owner nor corporate Kia would step up and take responsibility, opting instead to point fingers at each other. So I tried the free mediation service that certain municipalities and nonprofits around the state offer in conjunction with the attorney general’s office. A very nice advocate took on my case. After a couple of months of back-and-forths, Kia offered a token amount. However, the agreement required that I sign away any ability to criticize Kia publicly. I declined the offer. I wasn’t going to sell my silence for a few hundred bucks.

    Elliott says one of the most common mistakes that consumers make in lodging their complaints with a big corporation is going first to the CEO. Start a bit lower on the org chart.

    A few months back, I had a problem with the web-hosting service 1&1 Internet. I tried the toll-free service number, a call center experience that did nothing but waste my time and raise my blood pressure. So I tried contacting an executive with the company. There was no listing for it on Elliott.org, and because it is owned by a large foreign firm, it was hard to find the appropriate contacts domestically. After some sleuthing, I found an e-mail for an executive named Ian Morris, whose job title was “head of tools.”

    I explained my frustration to him in an e-mail. Considering that I really had no idea what his job title meant, I wasn’t overly optimistic that this route would work.

    Not five minutes later, my phone rang. It was Morris. As he apologized for my problem, he sounded a bit out of breath. Before I could ask why that was, he said, “Sorry, I just landed in Germany and am walking between buildings to get to a meeting. But I did want to get back to you.” He ended up connecting me with a deputy back in Pennsylvania, who promptly resolved the problem.

    I couldn’t have asked for a better response. Something tells me Katie “one-star” Miller never got that kind of satisfaction from any of her indignant rants on Yelp.

    Neil Swidey is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at swidey@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @neilswidey. Globe correspondents Nicole DeFeudis and Lisa Tuite contributed to this report.