Why Making Up Testimonials Can Be Bad For Business - The DWP Scandal

Michael Burke, the author, has over 10 years of experience working in the Internet sector

Michael Burke

Web & Mobile Expert, Technical Director of Emerald Creative

While testimonials and reviews can make your product or business look amazing to potential buyers, making them up can backfire spectacularly and damage your reputation. Michael Burke explains why it can pay dividends to avoid the temptation of falsifying reviews and recommendations.

On the 18th August 2015, both The Guardian and The Huffington Post reported a story that has gone largely unreported in the wider media here in the United Kingdom. It turns out that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), under the leadership of Iain Duncan-Smith, have been fabricating testimonials from fake benefit claimants. These testimonials were then used to promote the Government's controversial welfare reforms.

And that is as far as this article will go politically. Everyone will have their own views and opinions on the politics of the UK, but for the purposes of this article and your business we are going to stick to the actions of the DWP, the outcome, and why you should avoid doing something similar.

So back to the story. It was noticed that in leaflets produced by the DWP, two stories were used. Sarah's Story and Zac's Story, and both contained an image of a person you would be forgiven for thinking were Sarah and Zac respectively. The testimonials, or quotes, effectively promote the benefits of the new restrictions which are part and parcel of the new welfare reforms. On face value it looks like the Government, the DWP, and Iain Duncan-Smith have pulled off a master stroke: the reforms that they pushed through are benefiting the very people that they were intended to help.

But like the old saying goes, you shouldn't judge a book by it's cover. And you shouldn't trust these testimonials on face value.

A news provider called Welfare Weekly lodged a Freedom of Information Request to the DWP regarding these testimonials and the results were astounding. The DWP used stock photography of individuals and published them along side the testimonials. This meant the photos of Sarah and Zac that were used weren't of them at all. What's more, the DWP also stated that the names and comments used in the leaflet were for “illustrative purposes only”. Basically the DWP concocted the testimonials to promote the reforms in their leaflets, but also forgot to add the disclaimer that the quotes and photography were for “illustrative purposes only”.

So what exactly were the consequences of this? Well since the situation came to light many people have expressed their outrage towards the DWP for their actions, some going as far to say that if a journalist had fabricated quotes like this then they would lose their jobs. As well as this, calls have been made for Iain Duncan-Smith to resign, there is even a petition to call on the Government to perform a vote of no confidence in him because of the situation. So the ramifications are fairly major and are likely to grow.

Why Are Making Up Testimonials A Bad Thing?

The beauty of testimonials, quotes etc are that the reader can immediately identify them as a recommendation of a company or product. Someone real has bought the product or done business with the company and they have found them that good that they wanted to make their feelings public. It gives credibility to a product, service or business, and in many cases will be the deciding factor in whether a potential client becomes a customer.

Because they work so well when done naturally, if you decide to fabricate your testimonials and the potential customer picks up that then the complete opposite reaction will take place. They will view your business or product as dishonest and not at all trustworthy. They may even view your site as a scam, designed to steal their personal and credit card details. If you remain unconvinced then ask yourself this; if you were a customer and you came across a website that was obviously fabricating their testimonials, would you do business with them? If the answer to the question is yes, then you're a braver person than me.

More often than not, businesses will use fake testimonials on their site or wider marketing because they have requested a real testimonial from a client and it's either been a poorly written testimonial or one hasn't been provided at all. But even if this is the case, you should not resort to fabricating testimonials.

But I Have Asked For Testimonials From Clients And They Haven't Given Me One? What Can I Do?

I have had the same problem when asking clients for a testimonial for work that either myself or Emerald Creative have done for them. They are more than happy to give a testimonial, but life and work commitments get in the way and it can take a long time to get these from them. Even if they have time to write one, it can be quite hard for them to know what to write or even how to write it. And because of the delays you will inevitably face, the temptation to pull testimonials and quotes out of thin air will be even more tempting.

However, you can avoid this temptation by following our three step plan, and this is something that we have utilised to great effect with our own clients. It means we can get our testimonials and quotes legitimately way but in a way that is totally painless to the client. These three steps are:

  1. Initially ask the client if they would mind giving a testimonial
  2. Construct a testimonial based on the work you did for them
  3. Pass it to the client and ask if they are happy with the testimonial

Now you may ask yourself why, after what I have said about using fabricated testimonials and the negative impact they can have on a business, would I suggest writing a testimonial for a client?

The answer is very simple; once you have written the testimonial, which will be based on the real work and service you did for the client, you are asking the client to then endorse that testimonial. Remember, their name and likeness will be associated with it, so they won't allow you to write anything that could make them look bad by association if the testimonial turns out to be false.

The benefit of doing it this way for clients who may struggle to write a testimonial for you is that you have some freedom in what can go in the testimonial. If you want to reference a particular service or product you provided the client by name then you can do that. The other benefit is that while the client was happy to provide you a testimonial, you may have burdened them with it – hence the length of time it's taken for you to get that testimonial. By offering to write the testimonial for them so they can just sign it off at the end, you are then making a labour intensive activity for your client in to something that's fairly easy for them – meaning they may be more willing to provide you with further testimonials (or at least permission to produce them) in the future.

So while the outcome of the DWP leaflet saga is set to rumble on, it should serve as a lesson to all businesses that use testimonials to sell their services or products. Don't make them up, even if a client hasn't provided you with a promised quote. Instead write one, honestly, and based on the work you did for the client. Then show it to the client and ask if they would be happy for you to use this quote with their name attached to it. But whatever you do: do not fabricate testimonials. You will be found out eventually!

Posted in #TopicalThursday, Business, Marketing on 27th August 2015

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