Insights on Travel from Costa Rica Expeditions’ Founder Michael Kaye and his Expert Friends.

Are “Testimonials You Can Believe In” an Oxymoron?

When you read or hear testimonials from a business that are all raves, do you believe that you are getting the whole picture?

I know I don’t.

Therefore, for the past few months Ramy Deeb and our team of developers have been working on a Website designed to receive and publish ALL the feedback we get from guests.  It’s in a unique form that lets you select only the feedback – raves or complaints — that YOU want to look at.

We believe that will be most useful to prospective guests and past guests — and will facilitate our learning from the feedback.  Indeed, it strikes us as something new in how testimonials are reported in the world – but let’s see what you think.

If you have a chance, I’d love it if you would take a look at it a very early beta version of the new page and then give me feedback in the comments section at the end of this blog post.

But before you go to the new page, a few things you need to know…

  1. The most distinctive feature of the site is that we have divided all the feedback we receive from travelers into 5 categories.  Here’s a screenshot.
  2. When the page is ready for our past guests, they will have been pre-registered by us, so when they arrive at the page all they’ll have to do is put in their email address and select their own password and username to log in.
  3. To enable you to have a look at it now, as an “insider,” please for now just log in with:
    • Username: guest
    • Password: friend
  4. The site has all the feedback we have received from guests who traveled with us after January, but we have only had time categorize (tag) the feedback from June 10 on.  If you click on one or more of the categories the results will start at that date.

As you enter the page,  please imagine that you’re either a past guest or prospective guest, and  then comment from whichever perspective(s) you want.

Does the idea have merit?  If so, why?  If not, why not?

To see this new page, please go to http://testimonials.vacationtimeisprecious.com/ and then please post you comments at the comments section at the end of this post.

What other types of things can you think of that we put on the page that would be useful to past and future guests?

How about journal templates with a selection of photos that you use to keep a diary of your experience, add your own photos and have made into a Memory Book by a local printer?

I really appreciate your willingness to I will send a bag of gourmet to the person or persons whose comments I find most helpful.

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9 Comments and 1 Replies

  • At August 17, 2011
    5:09:20 pm
    Richard Nabholz said:

    Michael:
    Maybe asking too much of the guests? Could you combine a catagory such as “We liked, but we did not like”, or “Raves with exceptions”. But, on the whole, excellent, it is a rare brave operator of any business that will listen to the source of success for his business, the customer, client etc.
    Thanks, we will be back to see you, maybe 2012. Obama and our dollars???

    • At August 12, 2011
      4:35:09 am
      Chris Parrott said:

      (For the benefit of other commentors, I’m a UK tour operator.)

      Morning Michael,

      My intention was not to read any of the other comments, so I wouldn’t be influenced, and any overlap would be outweighed by the benefit of my views being untarnished. But I got drawn into it, and did read them.

      My question (you may have told me already) is will read-only access to this feedback be available to anyone? – of course only past clients will have access to post comments.

      My comments:

      1. Filters – yes. By activity, location, and accommodation. And by the question CRE asked.

      By the way, to start with, I didn’t twig that the 5-category filter works on the home page, but not when you get to the comments “Browse Feedback” page.

      2. Negative comments – it’s common sense that prospective clients are seduced by seeing comments which are not relentlessly positive. It helps them choose.

      3. Constructive response – common sense again that readers are impressed by non-defensive and honest responses. I particularly like Gordon’s response as to why you charge hotel bookings up-front. No embarrassment at letting us see the commercial nuts and bolts.

      4. Respondent’s full names. I can see this’d be useful to prospective clients, but I think it would have the effect of dissuading people from commenting in the first place. I suppose I’m still suspicious about the idea of unlimited social networking. I’ve signed up to Facebook, but I’m embarrassed by the idea of some stranger wanting to be my friend.

      5. Similarity of the questions asked. I agree, some appear to overlap. But I’ve been writing and analysing questionnnaires for 30 years, and I’m still looking for the holy grail of questions which elicit clear, succinct and constructive answers. Sometimes, the same question asked differently comes up with “bingo”.

      6. “What almost decided you not to travel”. A really great question, gets to the heart of how to convert more bookings. Alright, the grammar’s iffy, but the meaning’s clear. Nice to see Cheryl keeping up standards though – there was me thinking that it’s only on this side of the Atlantic that “decide” is an intransitive verb.

      7. Advice for next guest. This could get out of hand. Guest of Costa Rica Expeditions? Guest at specified accommodation? Maybe limit it to three bullet points of max. 20 words each.

      Overall, excellent concept Michael. Presentation: easy to follow, but frustration at having to wade through so much “how wonderful you are”. I suppose this is the sort of downside that CRE don’t mind having.

      Can you track how many people filtered first (or only) by complaint and bitter complaint?

      By the way, I can see that not filtering by accommodation may well be a conscious decision to avoid becoming a Trip Advisor for all Costa Rica hotels.

      I’ll continue to graze the site – but I could easily spend a whole day at it…

      CP

      • At August 11, 2011
        9:20:37 am
        Cheryl Shnider said:

        Michael – Speaking strictly as a consumer and from the perspective of a prospective guest, I applaud you for your bold and innovative idea in creating this app. I regularly use TripAdvisor and its forums and find the info I obtain from other travelers to be extremely useful. This will be a wonderful resource.
        Regarding its utilization by us common folk, I could approach using this app on a number of different levels. If I wanted to get a generic sense about CRE’s reliability, integrity, helpfulness, friendliness and ability to customize trips, the information I would be able to obtain from the feedback as it is currently presented is great. It would tell me that most of the time things go well with CRE and guests are happy but that you are very responsive when things are not up to par. I love the responses from CRE staff. They are not the least bit defensive and demonstrate a level of follow-up that I personally have never experienced when making a complaint or providing constructive criticism. I would tend to look at the complaints and constructive criticism sections more than the raves and praise sections as a way of evaluating the integrity of the company. Also, knowing how responsive CRE is, I would be more likely to contact you during a trip if something that could be corrected did not meet my expectations.
        On a different level, if I was seriously considering using CRE and wanted more specific information, I would need the ability to navigate through what could be an overwhelming amount of feedback. More filters would be very helpful for this purpose. For example, I might be traveling with children and want to know how well CRE matches destinations, accommodations and experiences with the needs of children. Or if I was interested in birdwatching, I would want to be able to view feedback from people who could give me information about locations and guides relevant to birdwatching. Or if I wanted to visit a specific location in Costa Rica I might want to read the feedback from guests who had been to that location.
        On yet a third level, if I had already selected CRE and wanted to fine tune my itinerary, I might use this resource to help determine which locations to visit or what accommodations to select. More filters would help with this goal as well. I guess my bottom line is that, down the line once this is up and running for the generic purpose of presenting reviews of tour operators, you should consider adding more filters to make it more useful to prospective guests.
        Surprise! I have a few more suggestions:
        1. You should be sure to identify locations when the reviewer does not. For example, the feedback from Cristina Dueñas refers to “your hotel” being more sophisticated than anticipated and having issues with the bathrooms but doesn’t identify the hotel.
        2. Some of the questions in your survey are very similar and somewhat redundant. For example, the question “what would you say to a friend to persuade them to choose us?” All the previous feedback should speak for itself. Another example: you ask about what things and what people exceeded or fell short of expectations in two separate questions.
        3. The grammar of “decided you not to“ and “decided you to” is awkward in the questions about choosing CRE.
        4. Judy mentioned an “advice for the next guest” category. I second that suggestion.
        5. Lastly, is there any way (perhaps through facebook) to allow the potential guests to contact the guest providing feedback for clarification or more details about their experience? This is one of the features on TripAdvisor that I use extensively. Not only does it help me to get the information I want, but it also provides me with a degree of validation that the review is authentic. (I once contacted a woman who, in her review of a hotel mentioned that she was there with a multigenerational group. She was able to give me all kinds of information about the area (not just the hotel) that helped me to determine that this area would be fun for the entire group traveling with us.) Trying to message someone by name only on facebook is difficult. You might ask the reviewers if they are willing to be contacted?
        Good luck with this Michael – its such a wonderful idea. How will you market the app itself to consumers??
        Cheryl

        • In response to your question about the photo albums… there are lots of sites that make that possible, through picasa, blurb, apple, etc… and many of them offer an online preview, which can be shared through facebook, etc. What if you just asked people to post their vacation albums back to you? Or offered high quality download photos of your lodges and relevant nature for them to add to their own albums?

          • At August 11, 2011
            1:40:28 am
            Emily Le Moing said:

            PS: If I were using these comments to help me plan a trip to Costa Rica, I’d want a way to check the comments on the places I was considering visiting. Rather than organizing the comments only by whether they are positive or negative or somewhere in between, would it also be possible to organize them by destination? Otherwise, once you get a lot of comments online, it’s going to be really time-consuming for potential clients to use them for trip planning. Also, re. the guest who complained because he wasn’t warned that Arenal volcano hadn’t been very active for the past few months, doesn’t your web site explain to guests that you can’t guarantee they will see Arenal at all (because of potential cloud cover) much less that they will see lava flowing down? We got lucky when we visited Arenal with you several years ago and had a fabulous view of lava flows from our room at the Observatory Lodge, but even if we had not had this experience, we had been prepared by our wonderful trip planner (Priscilla Jimenez), our great guide (Luiz) and your web site that the volcano might not be visible or active while we were there. I really enjoyed reading your volcano expert’s comments on Arenal but I think if you don’t mention in your response to the guest that he had actually be warned he might not see volcano activity,then potential clients might think you might not warn them about other possible glitches they might encounter on their trip. In other words, if you are going to post guests’ comments + your responses in this way, you need to be extra careful about your responses to make sure they give an accurate picture to potential travelers of the kind of service you provide. (The sad thing is, only a company as good as CRE already is would bother to take on the daunting task of posting guests’ comments in this new way. A bad company, one that really should have to post negative comments, never will. I’m sure that the fact that you’re posting negative comments is going to get you new customers. If I’d never traveled with CRE and knew nothing about it and was looking for a travel company, I would certain be drawn to you just because you were willing to post negative comments.)

            • At August 11, 2011
              12:50:38 am
              Emily Le Moing said:

              The feedback site is a fantastic idea. I wish all tourism attractions, hotels and travel companies offered this kind of information! I like the fact that you post all of each guest’s comments rather than just listing the key points; reading all the commments a guest makes helps give a picture of the kind of traveler each guest is, which helps put the person’s comments into perspective (and if a guest is a crackpot, posting the full comment will reveal this very clearly!). I think many guests might be hesitant about having their full names appear with their comments, however. I think you should require the guest’s full name in order to check authenticity but, when you post the comments, use only the first name or some other identification that protects the person’s privacy. Bravo for having the courage to do this and for taking what must be hours and hours of time to organize the comments and get them online.

              • At August 10, 2011
                3:04:05 pm
                Gary Estis said:

                I strongly encourage you to continue creating this feedback site. I like to read all of a guests answers. That helps me determine what type of traveler they are (experienced, first time, independent or tour oriented). Then I can relate their comments to my own likes, dislikes, and anticipated needs from a tour with you. However, I do not like posting hte last name. I recommend it remain required and then somehow filtered out by the site.

                I see the categorization of comments as a good approach. However, I want to know something about the process of placing comments in a category. Who does it for the company? What guidelines do they use to select the category? This helps me determine the validity of the process to the company. In other words, is it just eyewash or really a valuable tool for feedback for company improvement and client awareness?

                The best part is the ability to see the answers made to the guests comments, especially their complaints. This is where you make money with the feedback process. It forces you to actually reply and take meaningful corrective actions and it lets future customers see how much you care. A “cover-up” of problems would only occur when a complaint is not answered, so it makes employees stay alert. It makes management think “outside the box”, look at problems from a different angle, and to recognize new problems as ust that – a new problem and challenge. A company incentive program for important “fixes” may also help in this process.

                Please do not let clients categorize their own comments. This could mean people place comments in the wrong category and future clients miss them.

                I would like to know what travel professionals think. Could you highlight them somehow?

                • At August 12, 2011
                  5:48:00 am
                  Michael Kaye replied
                  to Gary Estis:

                  So many helpful insightful comments. I’ll respond as soon as I can. In the meantime, the travel professionals are Judy Drew Fairchild, Chase Buckner, and Chris Parrot.

                • I think it’s a brilliant idea to categorize feedback. For a potential guest to view a complaint and then see that CRE responded in a timely manner and really addressed the complainer’s concerns is huge. I’ve read many reports that consumers almost always sympathize with a company that screws up but addresses the complaints directly.

                  My big concern is always authenticity – meaning I am huge proponent of having Facebook log-in so that people may NOT create their own user name when it comes to comments/feedback. The ability to create anonymous user names opens the door to inauthentic comments as a commenter like “CostaRicaJoe” doesn’t have to own up to their comment in any way. He could be anyone. Requiring Facebook connection helps eliminate Judy’s concern about the crackpots.

                  • Ok… I think I like this idea… mostly. I love the division into raves, criticism, etc, but it would be more helpful if it were distilled into just the part of the feedback that fit into that category– I ended up feeling a tad voyeuristic about reading the whole question and answer session about a particular client. I wonder if (after each feedback question) you ask the critic to do the work labeling their feedback. Also, I would much rather read bullet points of constructive criticism (and I like that you respond to each) than page through all the comments of a particular person- I don’t need to know everything about someone’s anniversary weekend.

                    If I were filling out this form (I raved for pages, if I recall correctly) I might also feel uncomfortable with my last name being published… just a first name and location should add enough credibility– and, if I had just raved about you, I would link to that feedback on facebook myself… providing you with that discrete attention to privacy, yet the credibility of a real person.

                    I lOVE the facebook connection; we are just working on how to do that (and encouraging people to post their own vacation videos and photos, which are really just free marketing for us!) Facebook also provides you with an interesting benefit– now you have a connection with everyone who came, and not just the trip planner.

                    If you really post from EVERYONE, what do you do about the professional complainers? We, too, have few discontented people, but occasionally we get one who is way out of line. There are a few crackpots in this world, despite all my efforts to weed them out before they get to our island. I would hate for their bitter grumbles to dissuade the next guest. I guess, if they don’t have last names, it would be easier to refute some of their claims.

                    In addition to those categories, you might have an “advice for the next guest” category– I would read that one first!