The idea of creating online forums where customers can share comments on products and services has always been tantalizing and scary for financial institutions. Tantalizing because customer reviews are usually trusted, they can generate buzz, drive adoption, and they're free. Scary because customers might say something bad about a product, or the bank, or they might say something obscene or something that runs afoul of regulators.

"This is not for the faint of heart," says Rhonda Crawford, vp digital media and innovation at USAA, one of the first American banks to brave the truth and post customer reviews online. Crawford notes that an institution has to be confident that its products can stand the scrutiny this kind of forum opens them up to.

As scary as that may be, as people become more comfortable sharing information and making decisions online, FIs may soon feel competitive pressure to create these forums. Tom O'Neill, director of site innovation at LendingTree, says the trend is clear. "Customers expect to read other consumers' reviews of products and services, and it can be great from a viral marketing perspective. In the future, those FIs that don't put this information on the site will be at a disadvantage."

For years LendingTree collected reviews and rated lenders on a five-point scale in categories such as service and fees. But they didn't share the actual comments publicly. Last year, however, LendingTree hired Austin-based Bazaarvoice to handle its consumer-generated ratings and reviews and make those reviews available for all to read. It went live in July of 2009 and only a few months later the company calculated that consumers that read reviews were 83 percent more likely to pursue a loan than those who did not. There are 100 to 150 new posts per month.

What sold LendingTree on Bazaarvoice, O'Neiil says, is its "moderation process." Bazaarvoice works closely with each FI (CIBC, USAA, America First Credit Union are customers) to create the rules of the discussion (e.g., no cursing, performance promises, bashing of competitors) and then runs each consumer post through a four-stage review process (two technology screens and two human screens). This process keeps the discussion on target, safe for the institution and helpful for customers who don't need to wade through useless rants to get pertinent information.

While customer reviews are most often seen in the retail environment-other Bazaarvoice customers include Best Buy, Costco, Dell and Macy's-Marc Ostryniec, vp of manufacturing design at Bazaarvoice, says that customer reviews are a good fit for financial products and services because customers are very engaged with these and are likely to have valuable opinions and information to share.

The biggest hurdle with any potential client is convincing them that Bazaarvoice's moderation process will work. "The internal knee-jerk reaction is always 'No way!'' Ostryniec says. To convince them, Bazaarvoice explains the four-step screening process and assures them that all the human screens are conducted by native speakers. "We don't offshore this, there's too much subtlety of language."

If the institution agrees to move forward, there's a content hold period during which no comments are displayed to the public, but the FI can review the comments Bazaarvoice would have allowed. The company usually wins them over, says Ostryniec, and USAA is a case in point. At first the company reviewed everything that Bazaarvoice approved. But in short order it became so comfortable with the process that today it only reviews what has been rejected. USAA estimates that the introduction of ratings and reviews led to 16,000 additional products and policies across its five main products lines in the first year.

Besides ratings and reviews, Bazaarvoice also offers "ask and answer forums" where experts or customers can weigh in (LendingTree is planning to add this feature this summer) and a "stories" module where customers can tell tales about how well or badly a product or service performed.

Brad Strothkamp, principal analyst, e-business/e-commerce at Forrester, says Bazaarvoice is the clear leader in the financial services space, where connecting people to reviewers within their social networks has enormous potential. Financial products and services often come through personal recommendation already, he says, "so this technology fits in with how people make decisions anyway. I think this is very interesting."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.