Katherine Boehret

App Way to Gripe (or Praise) About Service

Call it a flair for the dramatic or a love of telling and hearing juicy stories. Whatever the reason, people have a tendency to talk more about their bad customer-service experiences than the good ones.

This week, I tested Tello (Tello.com), a new customer-service website and mobile app that encourages users to chime in on their customer-service experiences, good or bad. Businesses, or specific employees at those businesses, can be rated with a thumbs up or thumbs down and a detailed comment.

Tello was released in the Apple App Store this week, but I got special permission to test it early. It’s currently available for use at Tello.com, on other devices via mobile browsers at m.tello.com or as a native app on Apple’s iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. Tello’s founder and CEO, Joe Beninato, said an Android app is due out this spring.

At first glance, Tello seems to be another location-based service like Foursquare or Gowalla, which encourage people to “check in” while they’re at a specific place to find friends who are checked in there, or to earn badges and titles for checking in there more than anyone else. Broader review sites like Yelp let people comment on various aspects of a place or experience. But people using these services aren’t rating customer service specifically.

On the upside, Tello’s narrow scope means people know they’re reading solely about customer service, without hearing numerous details about other aspects of a business.

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Screen for rating an employee
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A rating as seen on Tello

The downside to Tello is that it can be hard to sum up an entire experience without considering other factors involved. If someone visits the new Italian restaurant down the street and its ambiance and food are outstanding, yet the wait staff is deplorable, a thumbs up or thumbs down doesn’t tell the whole story. For expert complainers, or people who like more space for expressing their opinions, Tello may seem too succinct. Its app and home page display portions of comments along with user ratings, so if you waxed on for a thousand words about a hotel’s poor Wi-Fi, bad lighting and slow room service, most people wouldn’t see those remarks at a glance.

Part of Tello’s appeal is that it offers a peek in on customer-service experiences around the country, so before I flew to California this week I took a look at Tello to see what businesses are getting good ratings out there. Only a relatively small group of beta testers were using Tello when I was testing it, limiting the number of rated businesses. But this will improve as more people use the service.

The Tello app uses GPS to recognize a user’s location and then displays a list of nearby businesses; nearby, in this case, is defined as within two-tenths of a mile. If people type in the name of a business and search, this broadens the location range search to within five miles.

On a few occasions, including a trip to my Washington, D.C., neighborhood’s independent coffee shop, a Greek restaurant and a Potbelly Sandwich Shop, I came up empty handed when I looked for reviews of these places. Mr. Beninato explained this was because some aspects of the search engine weren’t finalized at the time I was testing, and in one case, I was too far away from the business. Sure enough, after a final update, I had better luck finding businesses. A business can be manually added to Tello by selecting a plus icon and typing in details including the business’s name and address.

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The Tello mobile app

As for rating individual employees, on most occasions, I didn’t think to ask the name of the person who helped me at the business so I could comment on their service. I did catch the name of a terrific waitress at the Greek restaurant because she signed the bill with a smiley face. In that case, I was able to make a specific comment about an employee, rather than a general comment about the restaurant. I gave Mara a thumbs up and commented she took time to make useful wine suggestions in the midst of a bustling evening with every table filled. The more I used Tello, the more I started to notice employees’ names.

After using Tello over a period of time, each user builds up a personalized page of ratings, which is helpful for remembering which places are worth a return visit and which ones to avoid. Any Tello rating is, by default, instantly shared on the Tello.com site as well as to users of the app; it can be posted out to Facebook and Twitter in the same step.

Tello aspires to be more than the destination where happy customers go to cheer or wronged customers go to whine. An option on the screen where ratings comments are entered lets users request a reply from a business if they had a bad experience. When someone selects this option, Tello contacts the user via email and asks how he or she wants to be contacted by the business—email or phone—so the business has a chance to fix things.

Starting this spring, Tello plans to roll out new features aimed at businesses that will allow them to claim their business on Tello by going through a verification process. They will then be automatically notified of bad experiences so they can decide how to handle a customer’s problems. And in the future, customers who rate businesses might be able to receive coupons.

Another new feature due out this spring will let businesses add lists of employees for Tello users to see, which may help them remember who served them or how to spell an employee’s name. Employees who receive good ratings could be acknowledged and rewarded by their employers, motivating them to work harder.

Though Tello is just getting started, it could be an incredibly helpful service through which satisfied customers get to tell friends about their experiences—or disappointed customers get to complain with a chance of actually being heard. Just know that Tello’s thumbs up or thumbs down ratings don’t allow for much ambiguity.

Watch a video with Katherine Boehret on Tello at WSJ.com/PersonalTech. Write to her at katie.boehret@wsj.com

Write to Katherine Boehret at mossbergsolution@wsj.com


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