Complainers’ charter

As an Airbnb host, I obviously do my best to please my guests. And while I'm pleased to report that the majority of my visitors are happy, I also find myself on the receiving end of ridiculous remarks and complaints from a loud and raucous minority.

One guest complained about being woken up early by the birds singing outside. Another said there was dust when he ran his finger along the skirting board.

And when one guest wrote that the towels in the bathroom 'weren't great', I wondered whether it was time I closed down my listing. Why should I put myself in the firing line for people to find fault, I asked myself?

Just one disgruntled guest could ruin my business – and that of anybody else offering a service to the public –by leaving an inconsiderate and often, completely unfair, review. While they walk away and probably never give you a second thought, you, the proprietor, are left with a damning remark on your review page for everybody to see.

The reason my guests can leave these comments is simply because the website allows, and even encourages user reviews. These days, you can rate anything from estate agents to tanning salons to restaurants, to teachers at school and even doctors' surgeries.

Although it can take two to three weeks to get a doctor's appointment, the minute you leave the surgery,, an alert will flash up on your phone inviting you to rate your treatment.

In my view, these public review systems are a creeping menace. They spread discontent and dissatisfaction, and invite people to find something wrong with just about every product or service that they use.

Just looking through the reviews left on a selection of nearby hotels, I was appalled by remarks some of the guests had made. 'The pillows are too fat,' huffed one visitor. 'If you want a flat pillow, take your own.' A disgruntled guest at another hotel remarked that the jam at breakfast was advertised as Bonne Maman – but he actually got some other make.

Then hotel guests complain frequently about the size of the bedrooms or bathrooms – as if that can be changed, and at one hotel, a guest was angry because there were no river views. 'But we are half a mile from the nearest river, Sir,' replied the aggrieved owner. 'As stated on our website.' But because the hotel was not in fact near the river, the guest gave it one star.

One hotel manager said to me: 'So often, when we get a bad review, it's because the guest has had an argument with somebody, and is taking it out on us. Either that, or they are angling for a refund or discount.'

Restaurant owners also say that a negative review is often a disguised excuse for a free meal.

Years ago, it seemed a brilliant idea: instead of just having professional critics and reviewers commenting, why not give everybody the chance to air their views for others to read? So democratic! The hitherto silent majority could now become the vocal majority, and of course, internet technology made it possible.

The concept, originally developed in 2000 by the travel site Trip Advisor to allow guests the chance to rate their hotels, has spread like wildfire until reaching its present absurd level where anybody can comment on anything, and leave their reviews, however nasty. You are invited to leave a review for every single purchase you make on Amazon, even for a set of batteries or a computer lead.

The idea originally, I expect, was to enable people to make an informed choice about their purchases and no doubt it was started with good intentions. But probably even Trip Advisor did not realise what a monster they were unleashing.

Amazon book reviews, for instance, often anonymous or written under a pseudonym, are frequently no more than a personal vendetta against the author. Anybody can deposit a nasty remark below an online newspaper article, without any comeback whatever. This fast-growing tendency to post hateful or damaging anonymous comments is known as trolling – and has led to some celebrities, such as Stephen Fry, closing down their Twitter accounts.

There are even reports that trolling has led to suicide attempts and actual suicides. I have certainly known of teachers who had to leave the profession because of poor ratings by their pupils.

Professional critics and writers, by contrast, have to sign their work, and this means they can be held to account. Because of this, they have to be careful what they say.

At worst, the newfound ability of the general public to leave a review can destroy somebody's life or livelihood but even at best, it is turning us into a nation of whingers and complainers, always looking for the worst, rather than the best, in everything.

It's true that a negative remark may say more about the reviewer than the product or service being rated, but it still leaves a nasty trail, like a line of poison, that cannot be wiped out. As so often, Shakespeare summed it up. Speaking of the effect of ruining somebody's reputation, Iago says in Othello: 'It robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed.'

It is the case that in equal measure I can, if I like, complain about my Airbnb guests because after each one leaves I am always asked to state 'what they can do better.' In fact, I never do leave a negative review because I believe it can backfire. If I don't like a particular guest I just say nothing, and let my silence speak for itself.

This is probably because of the way I, and most people of my generation, were brought up. We were taught that if you can't say something nice, you shouldn't say anything at all. It was standard practice then to try and look for the good, rather than the bad, and so it should be today.

So from now on, I suggest that we should start to boycott websites allowing amateur reviews, and learn to stop complaining so much. Nobody likes a complainer, and it's dispiriting and disheartening when you are doing your best to please, and going to a lot of trouble to make sure your guests or customers are satisfied.

Where there is genuine cause for complaint, why not get in touch privately with the supplier concerned, rather than blasting your dissatisfaction on a public site for all to see? And ditto if you have a genuine suggestion for how something could be improved?

For instance, one guest told me I could get a universal plug multiplier, rather than the British one I had been using. It was a sensible suggestion and I took him up on it.

But I always boycott anybody who leaves a negative review on my listing. Whether or not they know it, they will never be allowed back. Because even though the remarks are anonymous to the casual reader, I know who the culprits are. And like most suppliers of services to the general public, I never, ever forget.