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2010 June 28 - 12:00 am

TECHNOLOGY TODAY: Web Provides Ample Resources for Unhappy Consumers

Life’s not perfect. You’ve got shoddy goods, poor service, government bureaucracy, crime, pollution, war ... the list could go on.

Sometimes when you complain, however, it can seem as if you’re howling at the moon. No one listens. The same is true online.

Complaining can serve more than to vent your existential angst, though this in itself can be healthy. If you do it right, not only might people listen, you might also get your problem solved. At minimum, you can warn others to avoid whatever caused your frustration.

You have a myriad of options on the Internet in venting your ire. Any online service used by people to communicate can be a forum for complaints, and many are.

But before you go public, it’s generally best when appropriate to try to resolve the issue privately with the person, company, or other organization that caused it. Many will appreciate the chance to avoid being embarrassed in front of others.

This is a litigious country, so if you do go public, and you’re the careful type, you should minimize the chances of legal action or intimidation. A strategy of “just the facts, ma’am,” rather than expletives and name-calling, is typically more effective in getting the results you want and avoiding trouble. Spell out what went wrong and what you think should be done. This can also be an effective strategy when communicating privately.

Online, the first place to complain is at the doorstep of the problem causer. A number of companies have forums at their websites or at least a customer service e-mail address posted there. Don’t be too surprised if your e-mail gets ignored or if you get a canned response without any action taking place.

You can do a Google search to see if someone has put up an independent site specifically for complaints directed at the company you have a gripe with. A few years ago Forbes magazine rated such “rogue” sites for ease of use, popularity, and entertainment value, and among those receiving top scores were AllstateInsuranceSucks.com (www.allstateinsurancesucks.com), NoPayPal (www.paypalsucks.com), and ameXsuX.com (www.amexsux.com).

Other sites are set up to handle complaints about any company. The Consumer Federation of American (www.consumerfed.org) just examined such sites. The three most popular are My3cents (www.my3cents.com), Consumer Complaints Board (www.complaintsboard.com), and ConsumerAffairs.com (www.consumeraffairs.com).

In its report the federation pointed out that such sites are better at giving consumers a voice to share their experiences and opinions than they are at solving problems. A number of them, however, include useful tips on resolving complaints, most notably My3cents. There among other things you can read how to write to your state attorney general, deal with telemarketers, and protect yourself from identity theft.

Other good sources of consumer information include the Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org) and the National Consumer League’s Fraud Center (www.fraud.org).

You can also tap into some of the Web’s more popular resources. Facebook (www.facebook.com) lets you easily share experiences and opinions, including complaints, to everyone on your Friends list. YouTube lets you easily make public any videos you create, including those documenting a complaint. One YouTube video a few years ago achieved semilegendary status by depicting a cable TV repairman asleep in a customer’s house.

Another effective way to complain can be a personal blog, either your own or someone else’s. You can also use Google Blog Search (blogsearch.google.com) to find relevant blogs. Still other options are public discussion groups. The two easiest ways to search for relevant Usenet and e-mail based groups are Google Groups (groups.google.com) and Yahoo Groups (groups.yahoo.com).

In the age of the Internet, a still very viable way to get your complaint noticed is to tap into the traditional media. Consumer columnists at local newspapers and national magazines are always on the lookout for interesting stories. Many such columnists justifiably enjoy playing hero, getting the consumer a refund in the end.

Smart companies monitor the Internet for complaints, not necessarily always to help individual customers but probably more to identify broader problems that could affect the bottom line. Some use free Internet search services. Others hire a professional media monitoring service, which use human in addition to machine intelligence. The International Association of Broadcast Monitors (www.iabm.com) is an association of companies providing such services.

The best corporate approach toward complainers is to show them respect by engaging them, to acknowledge their gripes, to try to find a way to help solve their problems or at least explain your take on the issue and then to politely disengage.

Comments: editor@ccweek.com

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@comcast.net or www.reidgoldsborough.com.

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