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Living Smart: Consumer Gag Orders

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By Angie Hicks

gag_order(MCT)—Online sites that allow consumers to describe or rate their experiences with contractors and other service providers are a fact of modern life.

But there are those who try to prevent consumers from putting reviews on sites like Angie’s List. You can imagine that, as founder, I bristle when I hear about members and other consumers being asked to sign a contract that includes what’s legally known as a “non-disparagement clause.” I would call it a gag order, pure and simple.

I believe service providers should never ask customers to surrender the right to free speech. This became an issue for me a few years ago, when my team learned that a few doctors were asking patients to waive the right to post online reviews about their experiences with the physician.

Since then, we’ve learned of the occasional company including non-disparagement clauses in contracts for services as wide-ranging as home remodeling and repair, professional photography and moving.

Negative reviews are a legitimate concern for companies. But a reputable contractor shouldn’t fear hearing the truth about what customers’ experience. On the other hand, I don’t think customers should consider a company’s periodic negative review to be a deal-breaker. Nobody is perfect, and what matters most, in my opinion, is how a company responds to customer feedback.

It’s also important that consumers play fair when posting reviews or comments. Here are my cardinal rules:

—Keep it honest.
—Keep it objective.
—Keep it polite.

If you’re describing a negative experience, provide constructive criticism when possible. Don’t negatively label someone. It’s one thing to say that someone showed up late and did sloppy work. It’s quite another to call him a crook.
Keep in mind that review sites are not equal. Many allow anonymous reviews; ours does not. In addition, we allow service providers to respond to reviews.
I take seriously the right of consumers to freely communicate about their service experiences. If my team learns that a company is requesting speech restrictions, we contact them. If the behavior continues, we won’t allow the company to remain available to searches of our site.
Online reviews can play a part in improving the overall experience that consumers have with their local service providers. Positive reviews tell a business what’s working. Negative ones give them a chance to make things better.

Angie Hicks is the founder of Angie’s List, a resource for local consumer reviews on everything from home repair to health care.

©2014 Angie’s List
Distributed by MCT Information Services

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