What follows is a cautionary tale about what could happen if you sign a consumer contract without paying close attention to the small-print.
Landmark Lofts & Reviews (London)
In July 2014, my missus and I selected Landmark Lofts to convert a haggard old attic space into a spare bedroom. The company had glowing reviews which played a major part in our decision to choose the company.
Landmark Lofts, a loft conversion company in London that designs lofts but allocates third-party builders to carry out the actual work, puts non-disparagement clauses in its contracts, designed to prevent unhappy customers from leaving honest reviews on any public forum.
Unfortunately, this clause only came to light after I posted some tweets in late March:
I received a phonecall from Landmark Lofts informing me of said contract clause and that I would have to pay £5,000 ($7,500 for you who work in US dollars) if I didn’t remove the offending content. Doubtful, I perused the contract and noticed that there was indeed a miniscule paragraph buried within the equally miniscule small-print
The clause stipulates that the signatory must not:
“…make any statement about the project manager and/or any of its employees, associates, or partners publicly on any public forum, blog, social network at any time during or subsequent to the contract period without the written consent of the project manager.
In the case of a breach of this clause, the client agrees to pay the project manager £5,000 in damages and consent to a court order providing for the removal of such content as identified by the project manager.”
It’s worth noting here that project manager, rather confusingly, is defined much earlier in the contract’s small-print as being ‘Landmark Lofts’ itself, not my actual (human) project manager (who was really nice, but had to work under difficult circumstances).
The company also followed up with an email to the same effect as the phonecall, saying that “if the Tweets are not removed, we will have no alternative but to pass this to our legal team.”
This really got me thinking though. If I’ve been subjected to this type of bullying for posting fairly innocuous tweets, surely I wasn’t the first?
Ultimately, the way the company had treated me made me wonder why it had garnered such glowing reviews — was my experience an exception?
From that point on, I treated every interaction with Landmark Lofts with caution.
I noticed that another customer had expressed similar concerns to me, in terms of the ridiculously long amount of time the project was taking to complete. And when I pointed Landmark Lofts towards this post on Facebook by way of an example, the post vanished within 5 minutes.
I’d already grabbed a screenshot, on the well-founded suspicion that the Facebook post may disappear.
It had been on the company’s Facebook Page for some 7 weeks by that point, and Landmark Lofts had gotten its response correct — it had engaged with the unhappy customer. That is what social media is all about. So it is odd that it would disappear literally 5 minutes after I sent the company the link.
Elsewhere, Landmark Lofts also had a bunch of negative reviews on its Facebook Page, including one from me. These have all now been deleted. But in ancticipation of these reviews vanishing into the ether, I of course managed to grab a screenshot.
When you first visit Landmark Lofts’ Yelp page, it gives the impression that there are no reviews*. Yelp pronounces somewhat joyfully: (*no longer true — it shows one review)
“Hey there trendsetter! You could be the first review for Landmark Lofts.”
But wait. Cast your eyes a little to the south, and there is a cunningly greyed-out link that reads:
“7 reviews that are not currently recommended.”
Click on that, and you will be taken to an alternate Yelp universe, where 7 reviews are revealed, as if by magic.
I spoke with Yelp to better understand why it gives the impression that a company has zero reviews, when clearly it has quite a few reviews. Yelp blamed the ‘bots. It has a totally bonkers automated system that can hide all reviews from sight, even positive ones — of which Landmark Lofts has a few.
Here’s Yelp’s boilerplate response in full:
“One of the ways we try to help Yelp users discover local businesses is by using automated software to showcase reliable reviews. The software looks at dozens of different signals, including various measures of quality, reliability and activity on Yelp.
This means that solicited reviews may not be recommended by our software, but sometimes a legitimate review may not be as well. What is recommended can change over time, and a review that is not currently not recommended may be recommended on another day.
Please visit our Support Center for more info”
I genuinely don’t understand the purpose of Yelp if this is how it processes reviews. But I digress.
It’s worth noting here that some commenters — and I made this mistake as well — suggest that Landmark Lofts outsources or sub-contracts the work out. It doesn’t. Those are the wrong terms to use. What it does is sets you up with a meeting with a third-party building company, and you sign a contract with that company directly. More on that further down this post, but in short — it’s a real pain, because when the proverbial s*** hits the fan, and the builders turn out to be less than adequate, Landmark Lofts is not directly responsible.
That’s not to say that Landmark Lofts won’t try to play an intermediary role, but ultimately your contract is with the builders.
The smoking gun: WIPO & LandmarkLoftsReviews.com
Landmark Lofts contacted the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a United Nations agency, in October 2014, claiming unregistered trademark rights for the term “Landmark Lofts” which had been used in the domain name “LandmarkLoftsReviews.com”. Landmark Lofts requested ownership of the domain. The verdict? WIPO ruled against Landmark Lofts. You can read the full ruling here, though it’s full of legalese and isn’t always easy to parse.
An anonymous person had registered the website at LandmarkLoftsReviews.com on January 15, 2014. Mr. or Mrs. Anon. used an untraceable service called Anonymous Speech to launch the site — to be clear, Anonymous Speech is a service that can be used by anybody wishing to remain anonymous, such as someone who may be afraid of legal action if their identify is revealed.
Anyway, Mr. or Mrs. Anon aggregated a bunch of purported negative Landmark Lofts reviews from across the Web — ones that the accuser alleged had been removed from their respective websites.
Though LandmarkLoftsReviews.com is no longer online, the Internet Archive has preserved the site for posterity, and the amount of historical negative reviews relating to Landmark Lofts is substantial.
You can click on the image below then zoom-in to read them all.
Although Landmark Lofts claims that the reviews were fakes, I have independently verified a number of the reviews as genuine, but due to time constraints I can’t verify every single one of them. There is nothing to suggest they are fake reviews though.
One of the reviews was written by a lady called Lise Thorne, and I found her at the first attempt.
I confirmed that she was a very real person with a very real experience of using Landmark Lofts. We exchanged anecdotes, punctuated only by gasps of incredulity.
Indeed, Lise Thorne arranged a meet-up — tea, crumpets, the works — with OTHER Landmark Lofts customers to share their harrowing experiences.
Lise and her husband James took Landmark Lofts to court to settle an ongoing issue with some of the work that had gone on in their house. The court ruled in Lise and James’ favor.
In a statement about the original online review that they posted on Google+, they told me:
“We were concerned to save others from suffering the same fate we had endured, and had been endured by some of the other Landmark Lofts customers to whom we had spoke, we published feedback online.”
Lise confirmed to me that her review on Google Plus would frequently vanish, and she had to set a reminder every month to check, so she could repost it if it had been removed. But in 2013, she received a “3 page letter from lawyers acting for Landmark Lofts” stating that she should remove the review on the grounds of defamation. The couple told me:
“We replied explaining why we thought that everything we had said was true, and so was not defamation, but offered to correct any areas where we had inadvertently made mistakes, if they could identify any.”
No defamation case ultimately came about. But Lise said that her Google Plus account was eventually blocked (no reason given) from re-posting the review. My guess is that her review was flagged by someone, for some reason or another.
Anyway. Why did Landmark Lofts file the complaint with WIPO? Well, presumably because LandmarkLoftsReviews.com was once a so-called “gripe site.”
A gripe site is typically set up by a hacked-off individual with some sort of grudge. There are many gripe sites on the Web, including Mitsubishi Sucks and Microsoft Sucks. Some are deemed to infringe on a company or individual’s trademark and are thus forced offline — the Wayne Rooney case is a good example of this. But some sites are allowed to remain if it’s clear that they are not capitalizing on the trademark and don’t attempt to affiliate itself with the company. I’ve written about this type of thing before.
WIPO made one specifically interesting statement in its final verdict. It said [emphasis mine]:
“The Panel notes the Complainant’s submissions regarding the authenticity of the reviews. Although the Complainant has provided a sworn complaint that it believes the reviews to be false, it has not provided any evidence which supports this assertion.”
So, Landmark Lofts provided a “sworn complaint” that it believed the reviews to be false. But I have verified that some of the most prominent names in the supposed “fake” reviews were genuine Landmark Lofts customers — Lise Thorne was one of them. She ended up taking Landmark Lofts to court to reclaim money.
WIPO made some other notable assertions about Landmark Lofts’ complaint. Such as:
“This Panel considers the preservation of the free exchange of ideas via the Internet to be of significant importance.”
“The Panel cannot draw the conclusion that the reviews have been fabricated by the Respondent or any other party.”
“There is an argument to be made that the owner of a criticism website may have legitimate reasons to withhold their identity, for example, to protect themselves against harassment by supporters of the organization that is the subject of their criticism.”
According to WIPO, Landmark Lofts submitted a claim that Landmarkloftsreviews.com is not a “genuine reviews website” because it doesn’t allow customers to post both positive and negative reviews. This is hugely ironic, given that Landmark Lofts went to great lengths to prevent me from saying anything about it, even things that were not hugely controversial, and ultimately would have been viewed by few people.
“‘Landmark Lofts reviews’ has been set up to offer London homeowners an insight into the real reviews of Landmark Lofts’ real customers.”
However, Landmark Lofts’ site contains only positive reviews. Why? Perhaps because every single Landmark Lofts customer has had a happy ending (pardon my French).
WIPO ultimately ruled against the complaints made by Landmark Lofts, so it’s not entirely clear why the website is now offline. I asked ICANN if it was drawn into the saga at all, but a spokesperson said:
“We don’t know anything about the specifics of this particular domain name or why it may now be offline. “
Upon perusing the WIPO ruling in further detail, it appears the LandmarkLoftsReviews.com website was already offline by the time Landmark Lofts filed the complaint with WIPO. The complaint was all about an (unregistered) trademark infringement, which the company lost.
It looks like we’ll have to chalk this one off as a mystery. What is clear, however, is that someone, somewhere, went to extraordinary lengths to register this domain name anonymously, collect screenshots, and gather seemingly genuine negative reviews over a long period of time. It required real dedication.
Ultimately, the general claims contained on LandmarkLoftsReviews.com are largely consistent with my experience of dealing with Landmark Lofts.
Similar to Lise Thorne, I too have experienced a similar issue with my Google Plus review — it vanishes on a weekly basis. It’s currently on there just now, and I will keep an eye on it, but I’m not sure I can be bothered re-posting it every week. Here’s a screenshot of it though — if it’s gone from the Google Plus page when you read this, you can take a guess yourself as to why.
I’ve reached out to Google to ask if they’ve ever had a bug in their system that means that some reviews simply vanish, but I’ve yet to hear back from them.
Existing Google Plus reviews
What about the remaining reviews on Landmark Lofts’ Google Plus page? The company has a lot of positive karma going on there, and there’s no reason to suspect that the reviews are anything but legitimate.
For example, the definitely-not-made-up “user” Vera Wang Fanatic says:
“I’m happy with professional nature of this company. Considering an extension later this year and I know who to call first.”
Parvinder Goodbar agrees with Vera Wang Fanatic’s verdict:
“Can not thank Landmark Lofts enough. Professional team. Excellent service.”
While Ash Chuan continues:
“We chose Landmark Lofts to build our loft extension after considering several other companies. We are so happy with how much space we now have. We have two extra spacious rooms and a second bathroom.”
“We are very happy with the end result and would highly recommend Landmark Lofts to our friends.”
Charlie G adds:
“Builders were brilliant, and nothing was too much trouble – checked all the decisions with me, and gave really good advice. All really focussed on customer service, and took responsibility for making sure I was happy with everything.”
But it’s probably still helpful to break things down into bite-sized facts (as opposed to spurious guesswork) to see what’s what.
- 2 reviews aren’t from Landmark Lofts customers, but representatives from local schools who had been sponsored by Landmark Lofts. So… Landmark Lofts essentially paid for these reviews.
- 3 of the 42 reviews on Google Plus are negative (one of which keeps disappearing).
- 9 reviews are anonymous “A Google User” profiles: These are legacies from when Google used to allow people to leave reviews without having a Google Plus account. Google forced would-be reviewers to set up an account in around 2012-2013 (I think).
- 28 of the remaining 29 non-anonymous reviewers have only ever written one review on Google Plus. This includes “Vera Wang Fanatic,” who is clearly not a made-up person… right?
To be clear, I’m not making any kind of assertion here — you can make your own assertions from the information above. But why, when you juxtapose the broader, hidden (and often deleted) sentiment from across the Internet with that on Google Plus, Landmark Lofts’ reviews seem to be so polarized?
The only conclusion I can come to is that it must be the luck of the draw — a combination of which sales person you deal with (and subsequently what information they tell you), who your allocated project manager is, and which third-party building company is appointed to do the work. If your stars align, you’re happy; if you’re slapped with a wet fish and / or your allocated building team disappear for the best part of a month, you’re obviously not going to be happy.
That is all well and good if you’re spending £250 on a new garden fence. But if you’re spending thousands of pounds on a complete house revamp, well, it’s not something that really should be left to lady luck.
– Landmark Lofts address
On Landmark Lofts’ website, it advertises two offices. One is in Putney, South London, home to many affluent neighborhoods that are positively gagging for loft conversions. The second office, listed beneath the primary Putney hub, is in Canary Wharf, a major business district in the U.K. capital.
On the company’s Google Plus Page, home to Landmark Lofts’ much-coveted positive reviews, it only lists one address. The Putney office.
But a quick hop, skip, and a jump over to 93-99 Richmond Road (SW15 2TG) reveals that Landmark Lofts doesn’t have a Putney “office” in the traditional sense of the word. I can only assume that it’s a mail-forwarding address — presumably most of the mail gets forwarded to the Canary Wharf hub.
– “Just a project manager”
When I filed an official complaint with Landmark Lofts about the conduct of the builders in our house, this is how Landmark Lofts responded.
“As Landmark Lofts was only the project manager, having no responsibility for, or control over, the construction work, and the client had a direct contract with their building contractors, which is a third party, these complaints fall outside the scope of our complaints handling process.”
Yet, Landmark Lofts gives the impression that it — Landmark Lofts — carries out the actual work on the houses. For example, on the Google Plus page it will say something like:
“We’ve just stained this gorgeous staircase leading into the loft conversion for a delighted client in Streatham.”
Any prospective customer would think that Landmark Lofts had just stained that gorgeous staircase. But it can’t have, because Landmark Lofts is just a project manager. As it repeatedly told me.
It simply can’t work both ways. Either Landmark Lofts is responsible for the work, or it isn’t. By posting photos of beautiful loft conversions, prospective customers will associate that work with Landmark Lofts. But if things go wrong, in my experience, Landmark Lofts distances itself from that work when the customer lodges an official complaint.
When all is said and done, are Landmark Lofts’ actions in trying to suppress negative reviews unethical? I’d argue yes — using the threat of legal action to prevent people from leaving honest opinions is massively unethical. And one thing is for certain: it’s not a good thing for consumers.
If customers are prevented from giving their tuppence worth on the world’s biggest soapbox, this allows companies to create skewed representations of their customers’ opinions. Why openly promote your glowing reviews with one hand, when you’re actively batting down customers who think otherwise with the other?
“We have amassed the latest round of feedback and are happy to report that we’re getting even closer to that highly coveted but ever elusive 5 out of 5 stars.” Landmark Lofts, May 2014
I’m not surprised that Landmark Lofts has such positive reviews if it threatens unhappy customers with huge fines.
But for every yin, there is a yang. Landmark Lofts has argued that “misleading” comments can harm its reputation. I have a degree of sympathy with companies that have to battle unreasonable customer expectations, and I’m sure Landmark Lofts has faced this itself in the past. But I know for sure that I am not one of those customers.
The negative impact Landmark Lofts had on my life is immeasurable, and it was mostly all avoidable. So it’s kind of ironic that the tweets the company took umbrage at, and threatened me with a £5,000 fine for, were harmless. A flapping tarpaulin and bizarre foam inscription in my cupboard? These were the least of my problems, I can assure you.
Ethics is one thing, but what about the lawfulness of putting non-disparagement clauses in consumer contracts?
Unfortunately, non-disparagement clauses exist in a grey area in the eyes of the law, because no such case has been brought before a judge in the UK. But from the many experts I’ve spoken to on the matter, the general concensus seems to be that it is probably unlawful. Or, at the very least, a cheeky way of trying to scaremonger peeved customers into keeping schtum.
I contacted my local Member of Parliament (MP), who in turn liaised with the MP responsible for this kind of hijinks, to ask his opinion on the lawfulness of non-disparagement clauses. He wasn’t able to comment on my specific case, but he said:
“Business practices that seek to prevent consumers from giving an honest opinion of their experience with a product or service including the practice described in Mr Sawers’ correspondence may be considered as unfair trading practices under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 (CPRs). “
I also conferred with a retired barrister, and legal adviser with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ). He said:
“Sounds like some ghastly import from American Law. I really should not be worrying about such nonsense.
If the work was not of the standard required you are entitled to say so and publish it to the world.
While individual laws and regulations may vary from country to country, the fundamental tenets of “free speech” remain across the European Union.
The U.K. has the Human Rights Act (1998), which is based on the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Article 10 of the ECHR states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.”
In terms of precedent, there is some. A Blackpool hotel was heavily criticized last year after fining a couple £100 for calling it a “hovel” online. But the couple received their money back after complaining in the media and to Trading Standards, and it never went anywhere near a court.
The U.S. is in the midst of safeguarding consumers’ right to leave honest online reviews — plans are afoot to outlaw non-disparagement clauses altogether. Senators John Thune (R-S.D.), Brian Schatz (D-HI), and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) introduced S. 2044, which will be known as the Consumer Review Freedom Act. The U.S. has the right idea — no company should be allowed to discourage negative reviews.
What about the issue of websites such as Yelp that do not publish all reviews? Or companies such as Landmark Lofts that threaten huge fines and legal action to deter unhappy customers from leaving their feedback on a public forum? This is not clear cut, but the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) recent report into online reviews states:
“In our view, review sites which do not publish all reviews, even negative ones, provided they are genuine and lawful, and that do not clearly explain the circumstances in which reviews might not be published or might be edited, may breach the CPRs (Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations) 2008.”
Perhaps the biggest lesson in all of this is this: had I noticed the clause in the contract, I would have asked them to remove it before signing it. Or, I would have taken my business elsewhere.
Always review the small print, kiddos, before putting pen to paper. Else, you could end up in a thoroughly irritating position like me. But whatever position you find yourself in, if you know that you are in the right, do not let companies intimidate you.
-Are you a former Landmark Lofts customer with a similar experience? Or have you inadvertently signed a non-disparagement clause with another company? Feel free to get in touch to share your story.-