Sep. 8, 2009 at 7:00 AM ET
Justine Gabbard of Long Island had just been charged hundreds of dollars in overdraft fees by Bank of America -- for the second time -- and just couldn't take it anymore. So she sat down in front of her Web cam and got a few things off her chest.
"I have a bone to pick with Bank of America," she began. "I got $400 in overdraft fees, and I never bounced a check."
Gabbard was talking to herself in her bedroom, in what might be described as a video "message in a bottle." But instead of throwing her complaint into the sea, she uploaded it to YouTube -- where thousands of viewers soon found it.
"It happened twice to me, so it kind of drove me over the edge," she said.
Consumers like Gabbard have turned what was once a trickle of Internet complaints into an avalanche of revenge against corporate America, a trend that brings both opportunity and peril to American companies.
Soon after Gabbard posted video, thousands of other angry bank customers loaded their own video rants about overdraft fees, besieging Bank of America and its competitors with bad blood. Some even include detailed instructions on how to sue banks in small claims court and corresponding success stories.
YouTube is now home to perhaps tens of thousands of video consumer complaints, an uprising and headache for any public relations department.
Twitter also is fast becoming the new home for consumer rants. A Twitter user named @BoycottFunai recently started enrolling friends, family and followers into a planned action against the maker of Slyvania TVs. Unhappy with a new flat-screen model that stopped working after a few months, the pair of roommates named Tavie and Gina were even less happy when Funai refused to offer a refund. They started @BoyCottFunai and, after they gained a decent-sized following, a full refund check arrived via FedEx.
Stories of Internet revenge by angry consumers have become part of Web lore. There's the "Cancel the Account" America Online phone call, the Sleeping Comcast technician and, more recently, the United Breaks Guitars hit song, viewed 5 million times on YouTube.
But beneath the layer of all-time hits and viral videos is a trend that suggests a brand new paradigm in customer service. Ben Popken, who runs consumer complaint site Consumerist.com, says that thanks to the Internet, large companies can no longer afford to ignore unsatisfied customers.
"Every company wants to be on (online) showing they are hip, cool, engaging in the conversation," he said. "So you can't ignore problems that people bring to your doorstep online."
In a sign that random viral complaints have become a part of established consumer-corporate interactions, Consumerist.com was recently acquired by Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports.
Twitter users fight back
Online tools give consumers new ways to circumvent traditional customer service channels. Each new technology seems to open up a new door, Popken said. Recently, he said, an anonymous consumer who couldn't get through to Hewlett Packard using normal methods created a Twitter account called @HPDoesntCare and started "following" every Twitter user who seemed connected to HP. Then, he or she would Tweet about every phone call gone bad.
The mass appeal worked. The only tweet left on the account now is "Thanks HP. It is finally over. For real. :)"
Using a blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, or even old-fashioned e-mail can break through frustrating company logjams. It's a simple matter of public shame, Popken says.
"It's a basic human instinct to avoid public shame and humiliation. Society is built on shame," he said. Before the Web, companies could mistreat consumers in relative obscurity. That's harder now, he said. "Using the megaphone power of video blogging or an exposed Twitter conversation is a way to get these companies to wake up to the fact that they are violating social norms. To say, 'Maybe you are used to behaving this way, but here in the real world, what you just did is pretty messed up."
There's a positive side for companies in all this. Never before has it been so easy to identify unhappy consumers and to make amends. After a long bout of negative Internet publicity, Comcast appointed Frank Eliason to be its "director of digital care." Eliason -- using the handle @ComcastCares -- goes looking for troubled Comcast users and reaches out to them.
The Web complaint phenomenon represents an opportunity for companies to finally shed the customer-service-as-cost-center model, and instead adopt a new strategy that includes good service as a marketing opportunity, Popken said.
"Every Twitter management team's secret dream is that what they do will turn into a 'twitter-gasm,' " and be noticed by thousands of users, he said. With Twitter, Facebook and YouTube now a part of many marketing campaigns, it's natural to have the same employees who design social media ads handle social media complaints. After all, one viral YouTube video can wipe out the goodwill created by a multi-million dollar ad campaign.
'You have maybe an hour'
Todd Defren runs a public relations firm called Shift Communications that specializes in online campaigns. He says Twitter is particularly troublesome for companies because consumers tend to complain impulsively about even the most trivial missteps (my water isn't cold enough!). But when they do, they can create a permanent online record that irks company executives. Making matters worse is the intense network effects of services like Twitter.
"Before, when there was a nasty blog post, you had perhaps 24 hours to respond before it was a big deal. But in the microblogging world, you have maybe an hour," Defren said.
Ignoring complaints carries obvious risks, but so does addressing them, he said. Particularly during a recession, companies can't afford to staff up and address every negative Twitter post.
"Big companies we're working with are scared witless and don't know what to expect. They are willing to listen, but they know that as soon as they engage they are opening themselves up," he said.
Popken thinks all these new communications technologies have the potential to create a new golden age for consumer rights, as the balance of power is tilting a bit towards consumers after a prolonged losing streak.
"Every possible inroad is another vector to take advantage of, to get satisfaction," Popken said.
But there is a looming dark side for consumers. Generally, a small percentage of mistreated consumers follow through with complaints. "Noisy" consumers serve an important function for the silent majority, calling attention to problems that often results in solution for all. Without these pesky shoppers, firms could more easily abuse the rest.
Thanks to the Web, it's now infinitely easier for companies to find -- and quiet -- the loudest consumers. A divide-and-conquer strategy could ultimately lead to even worse treatment for consumers.
But Defren said he's not worried about that. As complaining gets easier and easier, he expects everyone to jump on the bandwagon.
"The friction of making yourself heard is only getting lower and lower," he said.
RED TAPE WRESTLING TIPS
Perhaps you don't think of yourself as the rabble-rousing, shoot a video rant and put it on YouTube type. That's OK. It's easy to find a company bulletin board using a search engine and post your complaint there, like these consumers who were angry at T-Mobile did.
A more effective technique is to scour the Internet for e-mail addresses belonging to corporate executives – as many as you can find – and send them all a well-considered, action-oriented demand letter. Some sample letters can be downloaded here.
The folks at Consumerist.com have boiled this process down to a science they call the Executive E-mail Carpet Bomb. They've posted detailed instructions here.
For easy access to a list of company leaders who can actually fix your problems, visit ExecutiveBomb.com.
Become a Red Tape Chronicles Facebook fan.