My Open Letter To Yelp

I recently had a horrible experience with Yelp’s overly aggressive sales team. Because of that, I recently sent the following letter to Yelp’s CEO which I will share here:

May 21, 2010

Jeremy Stoppelman
706 Mission St
San Francisco, California 94103

Dear Mr. Stoppleman,

Since Yelp doesn’t allow comments on the official CEO blog nor does it have a phone number answered by a human being or even a corporate directory, I’m forced to write this letter to you. That being said, I’m very disheartened and disillusioned by recent experiences with your company.

Of course, whether or not you react to my Yelp experiences is complete conjecture on my part. I suspect this letter will be thown away immediately but I’m an optimist. Then again, perhaps Mashables will be interested in my story. Additionally, I suspect that you’re in the precarious position that other companies were in whose credibility vanished overnight. I hope that’s not the case but with that in mind, let me explain…

I have a small business, The Hinges Improv. We perform once a month in San Diego. I had been a big fan of Yelp and found several amazing restaurants that I couldn’t have found any way else. It was with this background that I contacted Yelp to potentially advertise on your site.

It was shortly thereafter that Jennifer Hanley, one of your salespeople, contacted me. The initial call was uneventful and we setup a time a few days later to talk more extensively.

The actual sales call with Ms. Hanley was a complete and utter debacle and one of the worst selling experiences I’ve come across in a long time. Ms. Hanley took me through about 20 minutes of the Yelp sales script in which I was supposed to search for a particular article. Then I was told to read aloud a particular paragraph from Business Week. This “script”, followed religiously by Ms. Hanley, neglected to take into account that I had a good idea of what Yelp was and I really just wanted to know about pricing and what types of ad opportunities that were available.

Additionally, it was exceptionally difficult to hear anything Ms. Hanley said. It sounded like she was calling from a factory that manufactured wind turbines. Every few minutes, a loud bell would drown her out even further. I found myself asking, “I’m sorry. What did you say?” repeatedly because well, I couldn’t hear.

It was during these frequent noise breaks that I began to piece together what I imagined the Yelp sales office to be. After Ms. Hanley informed me that the loud bell was an auditory confirmation that a sale was made, I recalled the film “Boiler Room”, in which similar behavior is encouraged as well.

Once Ms. Hanley showed me mockups of what my ads would look like and the different opportunities therein (all very exciting), she moved on to the costs involved.

The costs ranged from $300 to $1000 a month, with a year’s minimum commitment. Now, I should add at this point that my improv troupe can’t afford this. We just don’t have the money in our performances. Additionally, we’d be on the hook for a full year.

It was at this point, when the “Boiler Room” tactics came to full boil. Ms. Hanley, sensing I had concerns, pushed even harder for an immediate decision.

“I thought you said you were the final decision maker on these ads,” she said with a vague undercurrent of hostility.

“I am but I need to discuss this with my partner,” I said, becoming noticeably uncomfortable.

The truth was, at the time, I wasn’t sure whether or not we could afford this expense and I was going to check with my producing partner. She wouldn’t take that for an answer though.

“What’s the issue? What’s changed?”

I explained that the rates and the time commitment were higher than I expected.

“Well, only a manager could approve a smaller term. And I really recommend you order now because the new month is coming. When are we gonna talk next? Monday at 1pm?”

“No I can’t do it then.”

“Wednesday then?”

“I guess. Ok.”

“Wednesday at 1pm then.”

The curious and rather puzzling thing about this approach is that I still feel that Yelp is a good deal for most small businesses. It offers exposure for restaurants and local businesses of all sorts that they couldn’t get any other way. I don’t even think your rates are that expensive for most local businesses just for ours.

That being said, though, Ms. Hanley’s salespitch made me feel like I was being pitched junk stocks during the dotcom era. Like she had gotten my name from an investor’s list. The only thing that was missing was the “What? You need to talk to your wife on this?” approach.

Additionally, Ms. Hanley never actually sent me a visual confirmation of the quoted pricing. No PDF. No rate sheet. This leads me to believe that you’re charging different clients different rates. Not illegal but not really that ethical either.

It was a few hours after concluding my call with Ms. Hanley that I decided a) we didn’t have enough money in each performance to justify the ads and b) I didn’t really like the taste left in my mouth by Ms. Hanley and Yelp’s approach in general.

When Ms. Hanley called, I let her go to voicemail. I then emailed her telling her we weren’t interested because of the cost. I heard nothing further from her.

The next day, I went to the Hinges’ listing and found that three positive reviews just happened to disappear from the Yelp page. The only review that is left is a middling 3-star review. What a coincidence!

I emailed Ms. Hanley, “It’s interesting to me that when I emailed you to tell you that we weren’t interested, all of a sudden our positive reviews disappeared. Is this a coincidence?”

No response from Ms. Hanley.

And that leads to this letter. I’ve tried calling a variety of different numbers for Yelp to inform you of my experience and got, at times, a scratchy voicemail or a disconnected number. It seems clear that Yelp doesn’t want to be Yelped.

The thing that saddens me is that I no longer have much faith in your company. What started out as something that helped me find great local businesses seems more than a bit unethical and shady. You have a great product; why resort to tactics to sell junk stock to sell it?

Additionally, why retaliate when someone decides not to advertise with you? Does Google do that? Perhaps this is why Google backed away from acquiring Yelp. Who can say?

I certainly am not alone in my experiences. Here are a few reviews I’ve selected from Yelp’s own Yelp page:

“Remember Friendster?  Myspace essentially replaced Friendster.  Facebook then overtook myspace.

In the world of reviews, Yelp essentially replaced citysearch like it was friendster.  Yelp, you are myspace at this point.  I can’t wait for the next new thing to render you irrelevant.

Your sales tactics are horrid.  And cloaking yourself in your shroud of “analytics” to justify keeping and filtering reviews is just stupid.  Your filter does not work.  I love when the owner and customer/client both vouch for the review, but you just say, “too bad.”  Yeah, why would you want to be accurate?”

“I used to love Yelp.
Then they “filtered” all of my kind, honest, from the heart reviews.

Now, all the love I put into my reviews has vanished, as I am certain this one will disappear in short order (my only 1 star review).
We shall see just how “automated” the process is 😉

How could I now trust yelp, that they have viciously “filtered” everything I have to say? Who else do they silence? How many others?
Feels like total censorship. As a card-carrying member of the ACLU, I take censorship and discrimination very seriously.

As someone who works in tourism locally, I meet thousands of interested souls each year, as they explore the great Bay Area…
And what should I tell them of Yelp?

I am so glad you are getting sued, and more must be coming.  Until you listen and change your ways, you will be litigated into bankruptcy by business owners that are over it.”

Like I said, I don’t know whether or not I’ll hear back from you but I may see what my options are. Perhaps Mashables or Boing Boing will be interested in my story.

Thank you,

Tim Goggin
The Hinges Improv

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