Anonymous testimonials, franchising and a £4m business

Yesterday’s somewhat jaundiced view of a local business award going to a used car dealership has got the woman behind thebestofcroydon, Maud Alleyne, in a bit of a lather.First, some background.

Thebestof… is a brilliant piece of 21st century business innovation.

It is a franchise operation run by a company called N5, which was set up in 2003 by a former banker and telesales exec, Nigel Botterill. It was Botterill’s wife, Sue, who came up with the real business notion, of an online “mix between the Yellow Pages and a parish newsletter”.

Botterill: hugely successful

The Botterills developed the online brand and framework, and then they set about finding people in neighbourhoods up and down the country to run their own local versions. With a decent laptop and broadband connection, you can run your own business from your spare bedroom. In Croydon, the franchisee is Maud Alleyne.

According to N5’s own site, franchises in other parts of London are being sold for nearly £28,000 each. Once signed up, franchisees also pay a monthly licensing fee. That makes for great business for N5: according to a profile in Moneyweek last year, by 2008 thebestof had sold more than 400 franchises and its revenues were more than £4 million.

Botterill now says he has started five businesses that have made him a million, though it seems that he, himself, has become one of the core activities these days. He writes self-help business books and stages a series of “Secret Meetings”, where his franchise owners and other would-be entrepreneurs who have watched Dragons Den or The Apprentice turn up to hear how they, too, can become millionaires.

Anyone who has ever had to work in a telesales operation will know what a high-pressure, even cut-throat environment it can be. With thebestof… what you have effectively got is a sales operation selling… sales operations.

Here’s a sample of some of N5’s own breathless sales spiel to its franchisees:

“One of the truly great things about thebestof is that you are building what we call ‘residual income’; Your customers will remain with you month after month. The results they get from thebestof will ensure that, for the vast majority, once they start, they won’t want to stop – and they’ll pay you each month, usually by Direct Debit or Standing Order. This means that your income comes in whether you are sitting in the office, or taking a month out to relax and see some of the world. Residual income is one of the most powerful aspects of this amazing opportunity; it’s what truly sets thebestof opportunity apart from all of the other franchise businesses.”

Croydon’s version of thebestof… site looks busy and active, and carries a reasonable amount of paid-for advertising. No harm in that.

For the user, the USP of the site, like Yellow Pages, is the ease of tracking down a supplier that you might need, through its searchable listings.

Businesses on the site are sorted into categories, and prospective customers seeking plumbers, or restaurants, or laptop service engineers, can hunt through the listings. Simples.

The profiles have all the appearance of being paid for by the companies, with the content supplied by the companies themselves.This is not, of itself, unusual: enhanced listings in Yellow Pages are also paid for by companies wanting to attract more attention.

What is not made clear is whether the listings are exhaustive, carrying details of every commercial business in Croydon, or selective, only carrying those who have paid to be on the website. That makes a lot of difference when it comes to the objectivity, or lack of it, of the listings and their attached testimonials.

Thebestof… makes a great deal of being a virtual form of “word of mouth”. Personal recommendation counts for a lot when you are paying 65 quid an hour for someone to fix a leak in your loft.

Down towards the bottom of the page, alongside the smiling face of Ms Alleyne, is a quote which says, “Here at thebestof Croydon, word of mouth just got louder! Every business on our site has been checked out by us and recommended by other local people; so you can use them with confidence knowing they truly are one of the best at what they do…”

Sounds great.

The profiles on thebestof… are augmented by testimonials, apparently from “customers”.  But these are largely anonymous. They might have been written by the profiled company’s boss’s wife or husband, their mother or lover. Or the bosses themselves.

And it was these testimonials that formed the basis for yesterday’s little bit of publicity, claiming that a used car dealership is Croydon’s best-loved business.

So we started to ask some questions of the usually very Twitterbusy @maudalleyne.

It all started off with our leg-pull in yesterday’s report about the [one instance of] poor grammar in the press release announcing that McCarthy’s Cars, of Mitcham Road, were the unlikely – to our mind – winners of thebestofcroydon’s 14 Days of Love competition.

So, Maud explained, the poor grammar was because she was born in France. Fair enough.

Then, unprompted, she volunteered some information about the 14 Days of Love promotion. “Results were taken from testimonials received from 01/03/10 to 14/02/11, nearly 12 months. Does that clarify your concerns?” she Tweeted.

She later added that the “massive booster campaign” only lasted two weeks because she could not provide 365 daily prizes – as was offered for the best testimonial posted each day in the first two weeks of February.

This somewhat overlooked the possibility that any company which had been receiving testimonials for the previous 48 weeks was very likely to receive more votes than any company might receive in the final two weeks.

She asked if we were questioning her integrity. We said it was more a matter of the methodology.

“I promise you that every single McCarthy car testimonial is genuine AND they are a fun v.Prof bunch to deal with,” Alleyne Tweeted later. We asked how she had checked that was so.

“May I suggest you go to … wonderful McCarthy Car”, she suggested that we pretend to buy a car there, to see for ourselves. We asked how much McCarthy Cars – which have a prominent banner ad running across thebestofcroydon site – had paid to advertise.

And we asked for the number of testimonials that the winners had received, and for the total number that had been posted during the two-week promotional period.

We’re still waiting for the answers. Maud said it was because she was not very good with IT.

Although we’re not familiar with her site or its content, it didn’t take us very long to do a little check of our own, and we found that McCarthy Cars got 90 testimonials, more than twice as many as the runner-up. It was not even close.

Down the list a little, in fourth place with 30 testimonials, was… [cue drum roll] thebestofcroydon website itself!

But those stats do not answer the other questions of principle about the listings, the checks that are conducted and the competition:

  1. Was the competition really for the best local businesses, as the publicity claimed, or was it just for the ones that had paid to advertise?
  2. Was it even slightly misleading to dress up a survey of a year’s worth of testimonials off the back of a two-week promotion?
  3. How many testimonials did the Croydon winners get, and how many were received in total, during the two-week period?
  4. Has Maud really checked every single business on the website? How was this done?
  5. And are the testimonials really all posted by legitimate and independent customers? How did she check this?

Hopefully, Maud will write her answers in the comments section below this article – although here at Inside Croydon, everyone will know who has made the comment, because we do not accept anonymous postings.

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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