Everyone agrees that angry customers are bad for business—Netflix and Bank of America are two recent victims of consumer outrage.Whether it’s a new product dies after two uses, a service contractor is a no-show, or a business imposes new fees for an old service, burned customers want more than a refund.
They want revenge, so they go to the one place where they can tell the world: The Internet.
The angry customer’s path of choice is both social media and for-profit consumer complaint websites that quickly get the word out about their unhappy experiences.
Companies are fighting back, however, with lawsuits and new online guerrilla tactics. They’re even hiring online reputation management companies that have arisen to help them.
Of the dozens of sites out there, my3cents.com, complaintsboard.com, and pissedconsumer.com, which launched in 2006 and 2007 respectively, attract the lion’s share of complainants, according to statistics compiled last year by the nonprofit Consumer Federation of America (CFA).
Other sites target specific industries—airlines, Airline Complaints; airlinecomplaints.org, financial advisors, BrokerCheck; cars, AutoBeef; and lawyers and doctors Avvo. Angie’s List, one of the first customer review sites, draws people who want to review local service providers, and announced it surpassed one million members last month.
The federal government is jumping in too—in March the Consumer Product Safety Commission launched Safer Products, SaferProducts.gov allowing consumers to post information on goods that pose safety risks.
Facebook and Twitter also have become breeding grounds for consumer complaints—angry Netflix customer tweets figured in the company’s reversal of its disastrous price structure decision, and a Facebook campaign to get people to switch to credit unions probably helped convince Bank of America to quash its monthly $5 debit card fee on November 1.
Connecting consumers online is creating more corporate accountability, according to CFA. The nonprofit’s report last summer noted that the information on these sites is rarely available from traditional complaint handlers like the Better Business Bureau, which typically reveals whether there are complaints against a business but not the details.
“There are many, many company abuses against consumers where there’s no redress,” says CFA’s director, Stephen Brobeck. “I think this is fundamentally a good thing because consumers are relatively powerless dealing with a large company.”
Randi Busse made the new complaint media work for her after a recent visit to a restaurant that’s part of a national chain. When the food and drinks took forever to arrive, she went home and posted a note on the company’s Facebook page: “The food was good but the service wasn’t, and I’m not sure I’m going back.” Within 12 hours, a company representative replied to apologise and Fedexed her a $30 gift card.
When consumers compare notes, they can save money too. MSNBC.com columnist Bob Sullivan writes that when an electric window failed on his out-of-warranty 2007 Jeep Liberty, he checked AutoBeef’s site and found out that Chrysler was honouring out-of-warranty claims if drivers followed the proper complaint procedure. That saved him $500 on repairs.
But complaint crowdsourcing also can hurt the innocent. Jim Olenbush, owner of Cantera Real Estate in Austin, Texas, found that out two years ago when he fired an employee for inappropriate behaviour. A few weeks later, he spotted a new comment on Cantera’s business posting on Google Places; its headline was “Austin’s Best Gay-Only Real Estate Firm.” Olenbush says the firm works with any customer: “We want to help everyone we can to buy and sell property—any nationality or sexual orientation.” After checking around, he determined that the post was the work of the ex-employee. But he can’t get it deleted—Google let him write a rebuttal but doesn’t remove comments, he says. The post has generated some awkward conversations with first-time customers, and Olenbush wonders whether it’s affected his bottom line.
Competitors also can misuse complaint sites to damage a rival’s reputation: “We have seen some instances where competitors are attacking each other with fake reviews,” says Rhea Drysdale, co-founder of Outspoken Media, which offers online marketing and reputation management services. Indeed, one guy offered services on a freelance job site to “write up to three negative reviews for you with three different profiles against your competition for $10.”
Companies are firing back at online complainants in a range of ways. An increasing number are suing—hitting consumers who post what they believe to be unwarranted complaints with “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” or SLAPPs. Even if the company doesn’t win, the idea is to dissuade others. (Anonymity doesn’t necessarily protect commenters, according to Consumer Reports.) For online reports that can be proven false or defamatory, a Dallas-based lawyer is getting court orders for his clients and then taking those to Google to get the search engine to remove its link to the report, effectively killing its traffic. And Medical Justice, a company that helps doctors prevent malpractice suits, advises its member doctors to have patients sign a copyright agreement covering any online post the patient might write about the doctor. That gives the doctor the right to remove a customer’s post. In response, two law schools have started their own site warning consumers to refuse to sign.
Other firms are turning to the growing number of online reputation management companies, which help firms control negative content about them on the web. Often that means building search engine optimization tools that push negative information about a company further down the search list. Other times it means using new media for more proactive public relations—getting out positive messages about what the company is doing well, according to Owen Tripp, co-founder of Reputation. But Ed Magedson, head of the complaint site Ripoffreport, says reputation management companies aren’t always successful. “I know of none of them—none—who can do exactly what they say they’re going to do.”
With consumer activist sites on one side and reputation management firms on the other, the battle on the web sometimes sounds like a political campaign. Many sites, including CompanyNameSucks, have tried to create a fair playing field, giving space for both complaints and rebuttals. Post-ers must make their case in 140 characters or less, and they don’t have to give their name or email address. If a company wants to rebut a complaint, they sign up for a free business account and can use more than 140 characters to respond, according to site spokesperson Chris Mitchell. Angie’s List gives their employees special training to identify heavily biased or resentful reviews.
But by one metric, all of the cyberwarfare may be helping consumers. The yearly American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), which since 1994 has measured buyer happiness levels, has climbed from about 72 to 75.5 since 2001. And consumer satisfaction is a key variable in stimulating consumer spending according to a 2010 study in the Journal of Marketing Research. Though there are many variables that affect consumer spending, economic uncertainty being one of them, in normal economic circumstances, a high consumer satisfaction level can increase consumer spending by 2.8 per cent. So both sides should be pleased even if they don’t like each other—the customer isn’t always right, but it doesn’t hurt to let them think they are.