Gripevine: Empowering the Customers

Consumer affairs can be messy, and can make or break an organization. Customers always feel they are right, while on the other hand on the other hand, company representatives, hiding behind the corporate structure, often have a pompous attitude and feel that one customer isn’t going to make a huge difference. Or, at least that’s what they thought until the rise of social media.

In today’s world, one angry customer is all that it takes to destroy years of carefully built brand image. We’ve witnessed several Twitter mobs in recent years vandalizing a company’s image for no reason, with people mindlessly retweeting things they’ve heard without even trying to see if it’s true. Due to these repeated encounters, companies started started taking aggressive measures against anything that put them in bad light. But, sadly, many genuine complaints get lost in this huge mess of online name-calling and coverup, and it doesn’t make things any better for anyone.

This is where Gripevine comes in.

What is Gripevine?

Gripevine

Gripevine provides a social platform for customers and companies to resolve their differences amicably. They describe themselves as a neutral, fair, and level-playing field, emploing social networking to make customer complaints and their resolutions transparent. No, this is not our usual ranting backyard, where we can just go and bash a company. We still have Twitter for that. This is an app for those of us who are keen on resolving our issues rather than pointlessly screaming “Company XYZ sucks“.

Who is behind this?

Ah! That’s an excellent question, and the one fact that makes Gripevine more interesting than other similar services. You might remember Dave Carroll, the guy who made United Airlines cry out loud with his viral music video. For those of us who don’t know, Dave Carroll is perhaps the most famous griper under the sun. During a trip to Nebraska in 2008, he noticed that the airplane crew was throwing guitars around while loading the cargo. When he checked after his flight, to his dismay, he found his favorite Taylor guitar had been irreparably broken due to the mishandling. When he reported this to their service team they refused to take his claim, citing technicalities. Fed up after a 9 month long battle, he decided to take the matter in his own hands, literally.

He composed a new music video, United Breaks Guitars, with his band and released it online. It was a viral hit, and a PR nightmare for United Airlines. Within 3 days of its release, United’s stocks plummeted by 15%, piling up a loss of $180 million. That was enough to get the CEO’s attention. They finally issued an apology and donated $3000 (the price of the guitar itself was $3500, mind you) to charity as a good will gesture, but the damage was long done. The video had such a lasting affect, it was featured in Time Magazine’s Top 10 viral videos of 2009.

While the video hurt United Airlines and perhaps dampened some of its staff’s career ambitions, that was hardly true for Dave. Suddenly, he found himself in the spotlight of media attention. He participated in several talk shows and even wrote a book about his flying with guitars saga. On seeing this huge success, he decided that it was high time that he put his new found passion into good use, and started building a new consumer complaint resolution platform with Richard Hue of HCMG and developer Chris Caple. That platform is now known as Gripevine.

How does it work?

Satisfactory customer service is a great asset to any company. But in the real world, it’s nearly impossible to offer perfect support to your customers every time you make a sell or perform a service. As a customer, you can try to remidy the problems you’ve faced with a company, but often you’ll get a low-level support agent that really can’t help. And while you could possibly mount a social network campaign, odds are your random tweet would get lost among the crowd.

No company likes being humiliated in the eyes of the public. That is why they go behind those who try to tarnish their reputation and get those posts removed from social networks whenever they can. Most of the time, of course, that just makes things worse. The best thing they can do to avert another United breaks guitars incident is to listen out to their customer. Gripevine seems to be the logical place to do so. It does that by taking your case to the higher echelons of the company, directly to people who have the power to make quick decisions without getting entangled in the normal bureaucratic mess.

Pricing

Once companys signup for a Grapevine account (all accounts are free till late 2012), they get a customized page for their company, where they can monitor the cases made against them and work through them quickly. One best part about Gripevine, from a company’s perspective, is that it’s not designed to be anti-company. It’s a service which merely points outs the loop holes in their system, giving them a chance to take action before the complaints tarnish their brand. Actually, this can be seen as a win-win situation for all parties involved, as the companies can use this as an opportunity to regain the customer’s confidence with swift action.

Plant your gripes

Plant your gripe and watch it grow

As a customer, you can use Gripevine to directly post your complaints about a company online. Right from the main page, you can start out entering the complaints you have about a company. The best part about Gripevine is that it encourages you to enter as much information as possible, unlike other platforms, to help the other person understand your problem better. There are no limits, whatsoever. You could even include a video detailing the problem, if you want.

Gripeview has a rather extensive directory of business listings already, and you can find local companies easily by area code. Can’t find the company you’re looking for? Don’t worry: even if the company that wronged you isn’t using Gripevine, you can add a new company listing and file your complaint. Once you’re done, you can integrate your Gripevine with other social networks to amplify your voice.

Some things are personal.

While complaining, you might want to include sensitive data, such as account or device numbers, so the company would know more about the problem. The problem is, with most online complaint options, the info would be easy for anyone to find online, which might be a security hazard for you. Grapevine understands the problem, and has a separate section where you can enter your all your confidential stuff. All data entered here is shared only with the representatives of the company, protecting your privacy while hopefully helping you get more customized service, faster.

One thing to note is, Gripevine asks you to clearly specify what do you expect from the company. You could request a refund, replacement, or even monetary as you deem fit, but you have to state explicitly what you want. Without this, it would turn into a useless rant, and Gripevine blocks all such entries. This is an interesting feature that makes Gripevine complaints much more actionable than random Tweets about customer issues.

Is this The Solution?

Gripevine is an excellent service with a lofty ambition, and I’m genuinely impressed with it. It’s quickly gaining a lot of traction, with more than 3000 users and 600 companies, and has already seen many issues resolved over the last 4 months.

That sounds great! But is this the magical solution we’ve been waiting for? Probably not.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It has got nothing to do with the service itself. The service works well now, and especially while it’s new, it’s got the ears of companies’ decision makers looking to improve their company’s image. The problem is, surely CEOs and CFOs are busy people, and they can’t possibly take on each and every petty issue. Over time as the site grows, there would be loads of complaints. Companies would have to create whole new support departments with special powers to keep up with customers’ new demands.

At end of every year most companies do a compulsive auditing to cut down their cost. When these suits assume office, they scrutinize every single detail, and this definitely can’t miss their eyes. They’d be puzzled on seeing a pseudo-structure working above their regular consumer service team. When you try to explain things to them, nine out of ten times they would recommend on training the existing customer care executives and cut down the team size, without seeing the bigger picture.

Of course this is a hypothetical situation, but I just don’t believe that a third party can revolutionize things. Every country has their own consumer courts, and large companies are used to having numerous cases stacked against them at any time. If that hasn’t given them a reason to change, I doubt a few more complaints on the web in a specalized app would do anything. Having personally paraded several angry protests against quite a few companies that make it a point to cheat their customers, I can assure you one thing: unless there is a cultural change, don’t expect things to improve soon.

What’s your say?

The web has given everyone a voice today, and companies like United Airlines have learned the hard way how much damage one angry custome can cause to their brand. Gripevine can definitely help companies in understanding their deficiencies and help them plug the holes, but the biggest thing companies need to do is start being more human and less bureaucratic. When our terms of service and license agreements are filled with so much technical jargon that the average person can’t understand them, and customer support agents seem more interested in transferring you to another operator instead of helping you out, it seems little progress can be made in the world of customer service. Until companies start changing, Gripevine can definitely be used as a temporary mechanism to help their customers. It’s an ambitious service, and I’ll be very interested to see how things pans out for them. After all, Dave seems to be a man who can work his magic through anything.

What’s your take on Gripevine? Do you think web can emerge as a peace-brokering platform in the near future? Or should we all stick with airing our complaints on Twitter and Facebook, or on YouTube for the more creative among us? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.


Summary

A customer complaints tool that lets companies quickly respond to complaints and fix problems before they hurt the company's brand

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