Many consumers realize that the Internet acts as a powerful means of talking back to companies. Savvy companies listen, because they know just how damaging the Internet can be to brand recognition.
More and more consumers video tape their encounters that document funny or downright bad customer service and post those videos on the Web. Viral video can get millions of hits a week, causing some companies to have a knee-jerk reaction and make necessary changes to mend the consumer problem. So some complaining consumers have actually helped make changes to company policies. Why? Because smart companies realize consumer attitudes can live on the Internet forever and ever, wreaking havoc on the company bottom line forever and ever.
Here are some consumers who have done just that -- talk backed and gotten companies to listen.
Last June a Comcast customer, who doesn't want his picture shown, was surprised when the repairman who came to his house to fix his cable service went to sleep on his couch. The repairman fell asleep because when he tried calling Comcast, he spent more than an hour on hold!
So the customer took a video of the sleeping repairman and added a music track by the Eels and posted it to his blog along with a list of his complaints about Comcast.
Within days, his video shot around the Internet like a rocket, appearing on many Web sites. Hundreds of thousands of people watched it, including Comcast executives, who immediately fired the sleeping repairman, sent someone else to fix the modem and revamped its customer service.
Well, right around the time when that Comcast repairman was sleeping, Vince Ferrari was trying to cancel his America Online account. Ferrari says he wanted to cancel his account, which he paid $15 a month for because he wasn't using it. He had heard that cancelling an account with AOL was not easy and he soon found that to be true. Here's an excerpt from the 21-minute taped conversation Ferrari had with John, the AOL representative.
AOL REP:: Hi, this is John at AOL. How may I help you today?
FERRARI: : I wanted to cancel my account.
AOL REP:: What was the cause of wanting to turn this off today?
FERRARI:: I just don't use it anymore.
AOL REP:: Is that for business or for -- for school?
FERRARI:: Dude, what difference does it make? I don't want the AOL account anymore.
But the AOL "retention specialist" just would not let him cancel.
AOL REP: : Well, explain to me what's -- why ...
FERRARI: : I'm not explaining anything to you. Cancel the account.
AOL REP:: OK. Well, what's the matter, Vincent? I am trying to help.
Help? It took John 21 minutes to "help" Ferrari simply cancel his account.
"It used to be if a company did something wrong, you go, well, I'm gonna have to eat it because they're never gonna admit to it," Ferrari said. "But, now, it's like, you know, a lot of people can kind of get together, and say, 'Yep, it happened to me.'"
Years ago, there wasn't much that Ferrari could do about it, but today he can plaster it on the Internet. And he did just that. A million hits later, AOL apologized to Ferrari, fired the retention specialist and told its phone operators to make it easier for people to cancel.
Through the magic of the Internet you don't even have to be in the country to talk back. Just look at Capt. Eric Wright who, while serving in Iraq, had a run-in with Hewlett-Packard. He called the company to complain about his broken printer. Wright was outraged when he called HP and had to pay to get the company to tell him how to fix his printer.
He made a video of his experience and once that video went viral, Wright said HP sent him a new printer, thanks to the direct communication between consumers and companies that the Internet provides.
Popken calls what we're experiencing "a consumer party." A consumer party that gives consumers more information is a good thing. But wait a second. This isn't exactly Consumer Reports. There are no editors checking to see whether complaints are valid. Anyone can say anything.
When reviewing consumer complaints on the Internet, it's also worth remembering that some people are impossible.
One woman, who will remain nameless, called 911 during her bad episode at Burger King. Here's how that conversation went.
WOMAN: "Yea, I'm over here at Burger King. I asked her four different times to make me a Western BBQ Burger. OK. They keep giving me a hamburger with lettuce, tomato, and cheese and onion. And I said, I'm not leaving! I want a Western Burger!"
911: "OK. What is it exactly you want us to do for you?"
WOMAN: "Send an officer down here! I want them to make my ..."
911: "Ma'am! We're not going to go down there and enforce your Western Bacon Cheeseburger."
This conversation, and others like it -- perhaps not quite so extreme -- are also available in cyberspace forever. For a company, that can be both good and bad.
Three years ago, the battery died in Casey Neistat's iPod.
"I called Apple and I said my battery's dead. What do I do, and they said buy a new iPod. That's $400," Neistat said.
So he and his filmmaker brother made a video that showed Neistat stenciling "iPod's irreplaceable battery lasts only 18 months" on top of iPod ads around New York City, paired with the music track of Northwest Airline's Express Yourself.
Within a week, the video got a million hits and Apple changed its battery warranty. However, the company says the video had nothing to do with that, but policy change or not, the video still plays, smearing iPod forever.
"The fact of the matter is they were doing something that was unfair," Neistat said. "So let people see the Web site, let people see the movie and maybe then when they get screwed over a product they know they have a place for it."
Popken is calling this "audio visual consumer revenge." Popken runs consumerist.com, which lists 18 different consumer tips and complaints a day.
"It's you know up with the little guy," Popken said. "He can share his experience with others and become empowered."
So there you have it. The Internet is giving consumers new power. But not all the complaints are relevant or trustworthy.