How to Gripe (Effectively) Online

How to Gripe (Effectively) Online-image
Illustration: Hal Mayforth
Has your latest gadget gone belly up? Or are you finding mystery charges from your ISP or cell phone company? If you're getting nowhere by calling the customer service or tech support departments of the company involved, consider taking your case to the Web. More than ever before, the company may be listening.

Tales of ordinary people who used forums and blogs to get large companies to pay attention have already become Web legends. There's Thomas Hawk, who got Price Rite Photo temporarily kicked off shopping engines by complaining in his blog about hard-sell tactics; Jeff Jarvis, whose noisy dispute with Dell's customer support seemed to crystallize customers' discontent with the PC giant; Brian Finkelstein and his hilarious YouTube video of a Comcast cable modem repairman falling asleep on his couch; and Vincent Ferrari's recording of an AOL customer service representative who wouldn't let him cancel his account.

Not every instance of online grumbling will achieve those levels of notoriety: In each of these cases, the gripe captured the attention of traditional media, and the lousy publicity forced the vendors to pay attention. But these stories suggest some strategies for how--and where--to complain effectively. It's a good skill to learn, especially as more vendors participate in Web communities, either through their own blogs (such as Dell's Direct2Dell) or by monitoring, and sometimes posting on, independent forums.

"The consumer never has had a bigger megaphone than he does today," says Jackie Huba, co-author with Ben McConnell of Citizen Marketers: When People Are the Message, a book about how so-called social media empower ordinary folks to spread the word about products and companies that they love--or hate.

However, the most effective way to use that megaphone--and to be heard above the pervasive dull roar generated by other unhappy customers--is to be creative. "The idea is, if you can, to create a meme that will spread," Huba says.

The Comcast video achieved meme-dom, if you will, because people who viewed it instantly understood and related to Finkelstein's experience. So one of the first lessons here is that a big target is an asset: The larger the offending company, the more likely it is that others will have had the same issues you have.

The video also stood out for its use of humor. "If you've got something in your complaint that's shocking or humorous, it's more likely to spread," Huba says.

Huba also recommends using multimedia to make your point. The Comcast video and Ferrari's recording of the AOL customer service rep speak for themselves, as did the photos of flaming laptops that led to recalls of millions of notebooks with faulty batteries. So if you have audio or visual records of your issue, by all means let the world see or hear them.

When posting, try to focus on the specifics of your problem, as opposed to ranting about the vendor. You may enjoy writing a post saying how much you hate Dell, HP, Microsoft...you fill in the blank. But it's not as likely to get your problem solved as a summary of what happened and what you think the company should do to make things right. Sticking to the facts is also less likely to get you sued for defamation, something you may have to take into account, especially in dealing with a smaller, litigious-minded company.

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