Thoughts on Online Reviews, Suburban Express, and Dennis Toeppen

Apparently Dennis Toeppen likes to sue the customers of his bus company Suburban Express  (here, and previously here) with as many as 125 suits just this year in small claims court, many aimed at stifling customer criticism of the company.

This is just incredible to me.  Last year we served about 2 million customers in the parks we operate (I am guessing that is a few more than Mr. Toeppen serves).  Over the last 10 years we have served about 17 million customers.  Do you know how many I have sued?  Zero.  Do you know how many I considered suing even for a microsecond?  Zero.  Unless a customer is 6 months late on a payment that equals a measurable percentage of annual revenues, you don't sue your customers.

I know online reviews can be a mixed bag, and some people's mental state or unreasonable expectations simply do not allow them to be fair.  Get over it -- take your ego out of the equation.  For God sakes, Casablanca has 39 1-star reviews  (I always thought John Scalzi had a healthy way of dealing with this, publishing his one-star Amazon reviews on his blog from time to time.)

We get negative review from time to time.  The vast majority, while perhaps overwrought from what some might feel was a small slight, have a core of truth.  We treat all these reviews at face value, we try to track down the customers to find out more about their experience, we give out refunds and gift certificates, and then we fix things.  Our biggest problem is that we hire what seem to be perfectly normal people who turn out to be arrogant and overly-officious when dealing with customers.  This tends to come out in the form of an irritating predilection to over-enforce every trivial rule until customers' vacations are ruined.  In other words, they seem to act like Mr. Toeppen and his employees.  Negative customer comments are a treasure, as I can't be in every campground every minute of the day, and these comments are often the canary in the coal mine, letting me know we have an employee or process or training problem.

Yes, in a few circumstances we get flat out dishonest comments.  One ex-employee was so upset at being terminated that he posed as a customer, posting fake reviews about how we employed a sexual predator in some campground.  Several review sites we work with, knowing that I don't make a habit of trying to take down negative reviews, were willing to take this one down once explained.  The other sites that by policy do not take down reviews allowed me to post a comment under the review, wherein I explained the situation, and gave my office phone number and email for anyone to call if they had any concerns about the campground either before or after the visit.

  • a_random_guy

    Absolutely. Generally, I find that the very best and the very worst reviews should be ignored - I rarely read 5-star or 1-star reviews. But the 2-star and 3-star reviews can be very informative: They often represent someone who has a genuine complaint, but isn't totally flipping out about it. You can read the complaint, understand the situation, and get a better feel for the business. Every business has dissatisfied customers, the questions are: (1) why are they dissatisfied and (2) what did the company do about it.

    In this case, Mr. Toeppen is taking complaints personally, and is not dealing with them constructively. The result is a vicious feedback: he goes after his unhappy customers, who spread the word and draw more unhappy customers to complain. This behavior on the part of the company should - and will - cost them customers. Frankly, it is entirely conceivable that they will be out of business in a year or two.

  • Not Exactly

    The lawsuits were filed against people who cheated the company, not against critics as you incorrectly claim above. About 20 of them can be viewed at http://www.suburbs.com/lawsuitpdfs

  • John O.

    I get the impression the definition of "cheated" is being stretched entirely into make believe. Nothing anywhere or anytime requires this kind of belligerent behavior towards customers who suck. I work in retail in a poor city and we deal with terrible customers all the time, but we never go the distance to ever accuse them of being shoplifters. This is just plain insanity.

    If I was Greyhound, I'd deliberately run the competing lines at a loss just to take total advantage of this. These types of unforced errors of business judgement are what allow competitors to gain significant advantage that in most circumstances are fatal to the business making the terrible mistake. Nothing says, "Treat Customers Right," like watching everybody bail for the competitor.

  • John O.

    I give them 18 months tops. Their entire customer base is the college students they are belligerent towards and I'm sure there's flyers all over the campuses they serve calling for a boycott and spreading all the other word of mouth incidences that make people not want to ever do business with them again.

  • Kimmy84

    Hi Dennis!

    How do you explain the Jeremy Leval lawsuit?

    http://www.popehat.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/LevalComplaint.pdf

  • Kimmy84
  • perlhaqr

    I read 1 star reviews if they are a significant percentage of the total. Especially for things where there's a non-zero chance of "This item did not work, right out of the box, and neither did the five replacements I was sent."

  • John O.

    This is everything and more. Keep it coming and make them look like fools.

  • rgf

    Thank you for calling my attention to Mr. Toeppen's company and its website. On the website I find a very libelous and belittling article about Microsoft. I am considering instituting a class action suit against both Mr. Toeppen and his company for damages done to the value of Microsoft shares.
    Steve Jobs