April 20, 2024

Digital Domain: Consumer Complaints Made Easy. Maybe Too Easy.

But today unhappy consumers have Facebook and Twitter on their side. The new social media provide free megaphones that carry a customer’s complaint around the world. Perhaps a little too easily.

Gripe, a company that describes itself as a “better Better Business Bureau for the Twitter age,” is devoted to spreading word of a problem quickly. It provides a mobile app for iPhone and Android that makes posting a complaint simultaneously to one’s Facebook friends and Twitter followers effortless.

“The B.B.B. has a bureaucracy in the middle,” says Farhad Mohit, the company’s chief executive. You have to fill out a form, you have to put up with some hassle. “There’s a high degree of friction,” he says.

Gripe, which was started last year, removes the friction. With a little typing, its users can send off a gripe, which goes to Facebook, Twitter and the named company’s customer service department. The company is invited to remedy the problem and remove the stain of the publicized gripe, earning a “cheer.” Users can also send out a “cheer” in the first place, to applaud customer service well done.

Sending Gripes to one’s Facebook friends solves the problem of frivolous complaints, Mr. Mohit argues. “You don’t want to be viewed as a jerk by your friends and family,” he says. (I don’t know; how self-aware are jerks?)

Mr. Mohit sees the service as helpful to businesses because it gives them an opportunity to resolve the complaints posted through the service.

Gripe attempts to give all of its users a powerful persona by displaying the user’s “word of mouth” power. Mr. Mohit’s personal word-of-mouth power, as of last week, was “1,644,483 people.” This number is displayed prominently by the app and can be shown to recalcitrant store owners.

It turns out, however, that Gripe arrives at word-of-mouth power by adding together the friends of one’s Facebook friends and the followers of one’s Twitter followers. This greatly inflates the actual number of people who are likely to see a gripe or a cheer, which by default goes out only to one’s immediate friends and followers.

From the vendor’s perspective, a small number of complaining customers who use social media receive disproportionate attention. This is “social bullying,” in the opinion of Ashutosh Roy, the chief executive of eGain, which provides customer service products for its corporate clients. He observes that his clients determine their response to complaints registered by a given customer “not just by how much business you do with the company but also by how much pain you inflict on the company in social channels.”

One person who used the power of Twitter to inflict great pain upon one particular company is Heather P. Armstrong, the proprietress of Dooce, a widely read blog. Her story, from 2009, seems at first glance like an example of the individual bullying a company. It circulated widely and you may have already heard it: Exasperated with Maytag’s inability to provide her family with a functioning washing machine despite many calls and several visits by a repair person, Ms. Armstrong recounted in her blog what she told a Maytag customer service representative: “Do you know what Twitter is? Because I have over a million followers on Twitter. If I say something about my terrible experience on Twitter do you think someone will help me?” She was told, “Yes, I know what Twitter is. And no, that will not matter.”

Ms. Armstrong proceeded to post comments like this on Twitter: “So that you may not have to suffer like we have: DO NOT EVER BUY A MAYTAG. I repeat: OUR MAYTAG EXPERIENCE HAS BEEN A NIGHTMARE.” Shortly thereafter, Ms. Armstrong heard from an executive at Whirlpool, the parent company of the Maytag brand, and her machine was soon fixed.

This is a shortened version of Ms. Armstrong’s account of what happened. The full version runs almost 6,000 words: To my mind, the literary expression of her misadventures gives legitimacy to her complaint. She did not use an app like Gripe to frictionlessly send out a complaint to her million Twitter followers at the first twinge of irritation. She endured much and then invested the time to compose a long cri de coeur.

Without any hesitation, Brian P. Snyder, Whirlpool’s senior manager of social and emerging media, owns up to Whirlpool’s providing Ms. Armstrong in 2009 with “an unsatisfactory customer service experience.”

I think Whirlpool does deserve a “cheer,” however, for subsequently setting up Facebook pages for its Maytag, KitchenAid, and Whirlpool brands, in which visitors are permitted to let loose.

Mr. Snyder says that “patently offensive” items or spam are deleted, but negative feedback stays. He says Whirlpool is following advice provided by Intel at a conference about social media: “Keep the bad.” His company allows discussion threads like “Failed Dishwasher” and “Defective Dishwashers” in full public view.

IN the old days of Yellow Pages and rotary phones, filing a complaint with the Better Business Bureau entailed a small hassle. But that was good: it increased the likelihood that a fellow consumer had endured considerable frustration before going to the trouble of registering a complaint. With services like Gripe, a few seconds’ investment is all you need.

Nothing seems to prevent all of that word-of-mouth power from creating a din of complaints.

Randall Stross is an author based in Silicon Valley and a professor of business at San Jose State University. E-mail: stross@nytimes.com.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=9a85050ebd1f965a96907e824f1d6456

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