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Chris Ladd on Consumer Justice Online

"Getting screwed by large corporations is a kind of street battle, with the companies bringing guns to what you thought was a knife fight."


There are a lot of people getting screwed out there in this great nation of ours. Ten years ago, I would never have known how many. But now I know, for instance, that it took one guy nearly three months to get Verizon to install his DSL service. I know that another took his iPhone to Europe and came back to find a $3,000 bill waiting for him. Yet another had to ask AOL to cancel his account 14 times before they acquiesced.Getting screwed by large corporations is a kind of street battle, with the companies bringing guns to what you thought was a knife fight. If there isn't a threat of corporate lawyers getting involved, then it's "Hold please," "I'm sorry, sir, it's company policy," or "There's nothing I can do."But that battle is changing. The Consumerist, a Gawker Media-backed blog read by 2 million people every month, is one of the weapons behind this phenomenon of digital consumer justice. To understand companies, argues The Consumerist's editor, Ben Popken, we should think of them as forces of nature, governed not by the laws of physics but by profit and loss. These are as absolute as gravity. If addressing your complaint is the cheapest or easiest thing to do, they will. If not, then they're very sorry-they value your business, but there's nothing they can do. "They're not making emotional decisions," Popken says. "They're making a balance-sheet decision."There is, of course, nothing new to this. The difference today is that the internet has mobilized an army of consumers dedicated to dodging ridiculous company policies and hurdling script-reading customer-service representatives. With their sheer weight, they are driving a sort of revolution, pushing case after case from one column to another.Dave Stolte, the guy with the $3,000 iPhone bill, struck out dealing with AT&T's service representative. Stolte would have to pay, they said, or AT&T would shut off his phone-and his wife's. Desperate, he sent letters both to AT&T's CEO and to Apple's, neither of whom responded. He then sent the same letter to tech-blog extraordinaire BoingBoing, which posted it immediately. Within three hours, a high-level service rep called Stolte, apologized, and waived the entire $3,000 balance.This kind of thing is happening often enough that many companies, Popken says, have developed "blog outreach teams," which are "basically like firefighters," stepping in to stamp out any bad press in the blogosphere. Usually they do this by giving people like Dave Stolte exactly what they want. Problem solved for Customer Y. Good press for Company X. It's a win-win. When I called AT&T, a spokesperson told me that the company takes a customer's problem just as seriously if "you simply call us to tell us about it, or write us about it, as we do if someone puts it on a blog."That sounds very much like something I would tell a writer working on a story such as this one. It also sounds very difficult to believe, especially in circumstances such as Stolte's, involving a blog that has three times as many subscribers as the daily circulation of The New York Times. Let's be generous-perhaps the exposure Stolte gained on BoingBoing and the other sites that picked up his story brought his case to the eyes of someone who gave a damn. But perhaps his was a case of triage.Others take their fights directly to the boardroom. There is what Consumerist calls the Executive Email Carpet Bomb, wherein creative googling yields both a company's email formula (firstname.lastname@facelesscorp.com) and a list of corporate officers, which, when combined, often result in speedy referrals to someone who wants very much to make such carpet-bombing go away. There is also the well-written letter of complaint to a friendly CEO, which, if you're lucky, is then passed down to underlings more eager to do his or her bidding than yours. In a variation, one fellow called Verizon's corporate switchboard, asked for the CEO's office, and in less than three days, his DSL service, for which he'd been waiting for three months, was up and running. In each sortie, intelligence is gained, distributed, and discussed. Tactics are honed. The battalion of consumers grows stronger.And then there is pure catharsis, that instinct to gain satisfaction from nothing more than broadcasting the indignity to which you've been subjected. Vincent Ferrari had heard how difficult canceling AOL's service could be, so when he wanted to cancel his, in June, 2006, he took the precaution of recording the phone call. In a now-infamous four-minute-and-57 second recording of customer-service hell, Ferrari asks an astounding 14 times for the representative to cancel his account and, despite being 30 years old at the time, was asked to put his father on the line. In the following week, Ferrari's personal website crashed anew with each link from heavy hitters like the Consumerist, MetaFilter, Fark, and BoingBoing, and again as the story ricocheted through the traditional media, making appearances in The New York Times, the New York Post, CNBC, the Today show, and Nightline. Ferrari had created for AOL a very large digital black eye, seen by millions.To be sure, these stories evoke roughly equal parts commiseration and schadenfreude. For companies, though, the stakes can only get higher. Pissing off customers gets more expensive when each has millions of potential cheerleaders, and each of those cheerleaders is a potential customer. Would it be nice if corporations had purer motives? Sure. But for consumers on the front lines, the very best they can hope for is that someone in some position of influence comes to care what happens to them. In the end, why that happens doesn't much matter.

Blogger's revenge:

Thomas Hawk vs.In one of the first big blogger takedowns, Thomas Hawk exposed PriceRitePhoto.com for baiting and switching a high-end camera. The manager threatened he would "never be able to place an order on the internet again." After appearances of the story on Slashdot and MetaFilter and in The New York Times, it's PriceRitePhoto having order trouble.
Michael Whitford vs.Michael Whitford said he didn't spill anything on his MacBook. Apple says he did. After pleading his case to an AppleCare manager, Whitford took out his anger via YouTube, where he uploaded a video of himself taking a sledgehammer to said MacBook. Three hundred thousand views later, Apple reconsidered and offered him a new one.
Allan Wood vs.Superfan Allan Wood happily spent $280.45 to download the telecasts of 71 games from the official baseball site, MLB.com. But then Major League Baseball changed its video format, rendering all previously purchased games unwatchable. After being told he had no recourse, Wood posted a tirade on his blog, which was then picked up by Wired News, TechDirt, and The Washington Post. The league caved, granting free replacement vids to all.
Krystyl Baldwin vs.Krystyl Baldwin was pretty sure her $14,062.27 bill from Sprint was a mistake. So she filed a complaint. And? Nothing. It took a high-traffic YouTube video to clear up the mess. After being shared with 40,000 friendly viewers, her complaint was fixed.
Brian Finkelstein vs.Brian Finkelstein's internet service was spotty, so Comcast sent a repair technician to swap his router. When the technician fell asleep on his couch and failed to fix the problem, Finklestein filmed it all, then uploaded the video to his blog. Gizmodo and MSNBC carried the story, and within 48 hours a team of Comcast repairmen arrived and worked from 7 p.m. until midnight to fix the problem.
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