Why Customer Complaints Aren't All Bad

Gotta grudge? Traditionalists would say, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." That doesn't fly with online complaint monger Jennifer Biscoe, CEO of eComplaints.com. She encourages unsatisfied customers to gripe and has been overwhelmed by the groundswell of popular support for her idea.

eComplaints.com has 25 employees, but an even more sizeable number of volunteers, according to Biscoe. She gets unsolicited e-mail from people all over the country who want to publicize her site. "We call it 'constructive consumerism,'" says Biscoe. "These people will do anything they can to make companies deliver on their promises."

If your bags end up in Duluth but you are in Dallas, if your cell phone company sends you faulty bills, if your Palm Pilot gives up the ghost but customer service doesn't seem to care, now you've got a place to whine. At eComplaints.com, you can register your complaint and the site will e-mail the customer service department of the company that wronged you, demanding that you get what you paid for or be compensated. The complaint is posted on the site, and the company is invited to post a reply. So far, only 5 percent of companies have replied publicly, says Biscoe, but thank you e-mails she receives show that many more have resolved disputes privately.

The site has strict privacy controls, says Biscoe. Consumers can approve the release of their name, e-mail address and/or phone number to the target company, competing companies, lawyers, news media and government agencies. "They control this selection," says Biscoe. There are great possibilities for lead-generation services, she says. "If a consumer agrees to release the information to a competitor, we know that person is a motivated switcher," she says.

The site makes its money selling market research reports of the compiled and analyzed data. Companies can buy reports on themselves or on the competition. "Sprint might, for example, buy a report that shows there is a particular problem with AT&T PCS cell phone service in New York City," says Biscoe, whose problems with AT&T led her to start the site. "Sprint could then target a marketing campaign to dissatisfied AT&T customers in that area."

Does this daily dose of constant complaining get Biscoe down? "Not at all," she says, "I never get tired of reading the complaints; they're very entertaining." When planning her business, Biscoe missed the earning potential of the site's content. "It's very voyeuristic. People tell about their problems in their own words and get very emotional about it. We have visitors who come to the site just to read the stories," says Biscoe, who will offer the stories (with the writer's consent, of course) as a "story wire" to news outlets.

In an attempt at even-handedness, Biscoe plans to start a "compliment" section on the site soon, although she has hesitated so far to include positive feedback because she questions the economic value of compliments. "I'm not sure what we can do with that information," she says.

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