Academic journal article ABA Banking Journal

Trash-Talk-And Treasure-In Consumer Complaints

Academic journal article ABA Banking Journal

Trash-Talk-And Treasure-In Consumer Complaints

Article excerpt

On the Internet, where the message can instantly be "everywhere," what's said can count

The Internet represents both an accelerator of customer expectations and a ready accomodator of complaints when expectations aren't matched. Recall the 1976 movie "Network," which left a marker in America's cultural memory by portraying the rebellion of a washed-up TV anchorman. Driven to the breaking point, he steps onto his live news set and bellows:

"I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

The lament strikes a chord in his audience. Millions of viewers simultaneously rise from their recliners, open their windows, lean their heads out into a rainy night, and howl a chorus:

"We're mad as hell, and we're not going to take it anymore!"

This event never actually occurred on broadcast television, but with the Internet it can happen, and does, everyday.

Of course, fielding complaints has always afforded banks an opportunity. Using them, banks can give their customers better product choice, more convenience, and more value than ever before, and most banking customers are satisfied.

Nevertheless, there is a rising level of customer complaints. These include a new strain of them made publicly, for all to see, on the Internet. Yet some banks are striking gold by beginning to mine complaints as high-value market knowledge.

Before turning to why and how they are doing so, let's take a quick visit to the World Wide Web's world of complaint-sharing, where thousands of people are mad as hell, and doing something about it.

Complaints--on steroids

Complaints flow to the bank through every point where it touches customers. They also flow to the media, to watchdog consumer groups, to members of Congress, and to regulators. Last summer, the Comptroller decided that the complaints it receives are covered by the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act, and began releasing information that led to adverse press coverage for several companies.

But it's the complaints posted publicly on the Internet that are changing the very nature of the complaint process. The Net enables people to find like-minded souls and join with them in a united community, mutually reinforcing each other in an upwardly spiraling anger at a company. It also makes it possible for people--for instance, customers, regulators, and lawyers--to find people with complaints from whom to get information or team up for action.

Bankers who have not spent time on Internet complaint sites could benefit immensely from investing an hour or two "listening" to these voices. Many of them are unpleasant. (At risk of offending readers, a good place to start is to search for the name of any large financial company, followed by "sucks.com." Many bankers who failed to buy up these Internet domain names must today grit their teeth as their precious brand names are dragged into the slime. One such site features a cartoon figure that walks repeatedly across the top of the web page and urinates.

Another company-specific site is devoted to customers united by rage at a large bank. It is not easy to find this one by searching for the company's name, but somehow hundreds of infuriated customers have found it anyway. I happened across it and found myself in the virtual-world equivalent of an angry mob, united in outrage at this bank.

In addition to cataloging numerous gripes, this site offered visitors a wide range of helpful resources. It made the statement that the bank regulatory agency could "shut down" the bank if enough people complained, and gave addresses and links to the regulators' complaint sites. It offered a link to Ralph Nader's website in case anyone wanted him to know what was going on at this bank. It suggested the names of reporters and their publications who might be interested in running news stories about the bank's terrible treatment of customers. …

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