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.
“We have seen some instances where competitors
are attacking each other with fake reviews”
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 apologize 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 honoring out-of-warranty claims if drivers followed the proper complaint procedure. That saved him $500 on repairs.