Whistleblowing in Cyberspace

When it comes to the Internet, there are places you want to be seen. The top of the search engine results is always nice. On the other hand, there are websites where you don’t ever want to see your company name. These are the whistleblower sites that are springing up all over the Web. Some of these are company specific, like comcastmustdie.com or chase-bank.pissedconsumer.com, where the ire of a single, wronged consumer has grown into a chorus of condemnation against that one company. Those are bad enough, since they often show up on search engine results right behind or even mixed in with the company’s own site listings, but they don’t generally have the legitimacy of a consumer protection site. These, however, are on the rise. 

From the consumer’s point of view, that is wonderful. Consumers can check out a company before doing business with it, have a look at its reputation and read any complaints of kudos it might have earned. From the point of view of the business, this might not seem like such an unalloyed good. No one likes criticism, but according to Churchill, it is necessary. “It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body,” he once said. “It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” Sometimes the dull ache is ignored, the ailment going untreated until the pain is excruciating. That’s what sites like this do, turn the dull ache of isolated customer service complaints into the kind of pain that demands attention. Let’s have a look at four of these sites. 

Angie’s List

Started in 1995 and billed as a “word-of-mouth network for consumers,” Angie's List is a constantly growing collection of reports local service companies in 124 cities across the country. The idea behind it is simple: Have consumers report the good, the bad and the ugly about their experiences with the service companies in their area. Companies receive letter grades (A-F) in areas such as price, quality, responsiveness, punctuality and professionalism. There are also comments and information on the price and whether or not the consumer would hire that company again. Companies that receive high marks are allowed to advertise in the Angie’s List magazine while those that rate badly—and fail to follow-up on the complaints—find themselves listed in the magazine’s “Penalty Box.” For more information, visit www.angieslist.com.  

My3cents

Founded in 2000, My3cents.com is another fast-growing consumer information site. It is similar to Angie’s List in that provides an open forum for consumers to share both good and bad experiences regarding any company or product. Their stated goals are to help better educate consumers before they do business with a new company and to help businesses provide better products and services to consumers.

Two interesting aspects of My3cents is that A) it’s reports can be submitted to Digg and Del.ious.us, meaning that reports on this site can actually propagate across the Web; and B) that users can support each other by indicating how much they trust one another, adding to the credibility of their reports. In addition, My3cents offers what they call a “company response tool” so that the companies receiving negative reports can answer them. This tool is available only to verified representatives of a company and allows them to respond to any review. These responses get posted next to the consumer review and forwarded to the authors. For more information, visit www.my3cents.com.

Rip-off Report
If Angie’s List is a quiet chat over tea about the neighborhood plumber, Rip-off Report is a screaming match. Like the List, Rip-off Report offers consumers a chance to report problems and complaints with businesses, offers a chance for comment and rebuttal and puts the worst offenders—those with five or more complaints from different people—in a special, alphabetized section. However, they don’t stop there.

The Rip-off Report also covers government agencies as well as individuals, deadbeat parents, for example; and offers good advice on how to avoid being ripped-off. However, perhaps the most controversial thing is the fact that they never remove any listings.

That is correct: Right or wrong, once it is posted, it remains posted. The reasoning for this position is two-fold. First, preserving all complaints allows for “patterns of truly bad business practices” to be exposed. Second, it prevents companies from pressuring or threatening the people who post reports on the site to take them down. What’s more, it’s the position of the Rip-off Report that the companies reported on do not actually have a right to have any content related to them removed. The situation can be likened to a frivolous lawsuit. You can be sued on false charges and you can be 100% cleared at trial. That court victory, where you prove the charges false, is your vindication. However, the records of the case remain public. For more information, visit www.ripoffreport.com.

The Consumerist

Their motto says it all: Shoppers Bite Back! They mean it, too. The concept behind the site, and all the information you can find there is simple: 

Companies have a right to try to make a profit. We have the right to receive the goods and services we purchase at the price and quality level advertised, and the right to seek redress if these expectations are not met. You earned that money with your sweat, and now you're just going to let someone take it from you? 

Written in a blog style with plenty of links to other, relevant stories, the goal of The Consumerist is to allow consumers to protect themselves from unscrupulous businesses. They have stories sent in by consumers, detailing the bad behavior of companies from all industries, all of which are open to comments. They also offer information on how to deal with problems such as reaching Executive Customer Service and sending out an Executive Email Carpet Bomb, where they give you the email addresses of the top executives of the offending company and encourage you to email all of them until you get a response. 

What is interesting about The Consumerist is that for small businesses, the site offers more advice than criticism. One entry on the site, discussing another article about small business using phone trees to look larger than they are reads: 

This article suggests small business can make themselves look like big, important, inefficient businesses simply by getting a hosted PBX system. A robot will offer choices like, "1 for sales, 2 for service..." but all the options will route to the same operator.

Why capitalize on the efficiency, directness and nobleness of a small organization when you can waste your money and your client's time? 

There is no sugar coating any of the articles and comments here. You will find sarcastic humor, but rest assured that everything is blunt and points are made with same grace and subtlety as a World War II railgun. Unlike Angie’s List, winding up on The Consumerist is always a bad thing and while there is a way to comment on stories, there is no dedicated way to rebut what has been written about your company. You can check it out for yourself at http://consumerist.com

The Bottom Line

As much as businesses across the country would like to see sites like these close, Angie’s List, Rip-off Report and The Consumerist serve a purpose both to consumers and to the companies whose dirty laundry is being aired. Like a credit rating for reputation, these sites give companies a chance to see where they are going wrong and make corrections. When they do, they become better companies, which makes it valuable. Visit these sites and others like them and see if your company is there. See what has been written about your firm and learn from what you find.