THE TOUGH CUSTOMER- Online payback: Beware the power of Internet groups

A few weeks back I wrote about Kellie O'Conner of Lake Monticello and her unhappiness with Bernie Easton of Easton's Furniture. O'Connor's complaint stemmed from Easton's failure to repair, to her satisfaction, chairs O'Connor purchased at the Keswick store ["Leg up: Chair squabble rocks new resident," October 25].

O'Conner came to my attention through a friend who belongs to a Charlottesville parent listserv. O'Connor had published a post to the group about Easton's in order to, in her words, "warn those out there interested in shopping at a local furniture store." O'Connor reached out to me at my friend's suggestion, she said, "in hopes of getting the word out a bit further."

And so she did. But O'Connor also got some pushback from a number of Easton's fans, who wrote directly to me and posted comments on the Hook's website testifying to Easton's integrity and asserting that O'Connor's complaints grew from unrealistic expectations.

Similarly, about a month ago, I received an e-mail from an unhappy customer of a local hair salon that began, "Here is the review I posted yesterday on a few local sites about my experience at [hair salon] last Tuesday." As the e-mail's author did not return phone calls or e-mails, I opted not to write a column or identify the business in question.

The "review" described what she considered to be a botched haircut her daughter received and the salon's allegedly cavalier attitude in response to the ensuing complaint. 

Although I did several online searches, I could not locate the review online, and assume the postings were on a listserv, like O'Connor's was.

It used to be that a disgruntled customer could bring complaints to the Better Business Bureau, or perhaps to a reporter like me. But self-help choices, including the cathartic benefits of real or perceived revenge, were limited.

But thanks to the Internet and organized mail groups, disgruntled consumers can now tell their tales to hundreds, if not thousands, of people on their own.

As a columnist, I get a pretty decent response rate when I call a business asking questions about questionable service. Refunds, apologies, and promises of attempts to resolve miscommunications are the norm. It isn't any skill I possess, of course; it's my position and the fear of adverse publicity.

However, I can't help but wonder if the concern of local businesspeople with columns like mine is, if not misplaced, behind the technological curve.

While my column may provide unwanted publicity, it's a sword that cuts both ways. As a matter of policy, the Hook affords all concerned an opportunity to respond to allegations. The Hook's website offers further opportunities to comment following publication.

But Internet or e-mail group "reviews" can easily fly under the radar of a local business while still reaching a significant audience. Search Yahoo Groups with the word "Charlottesville," for example, and you will produce 342 results– groups of parents, young professionals, students, and on and on.

While I think the ability of people to access these forums with their consumer complaints is generally a good thing, there's no denying that abuses occur. And even in the absence of abuses, one-sided postings will, by their very nature, fail to capture the mutual miscommunications that seem to cause so many disputes. 

The problem is actually more acute for large companies, although they have the resources to monitor online postings and respond quickly. It's obviously tougher for a local businessperson to spend the time or money to monitor and respond to adverse online postings. 

While I wish all people could be reasonable and see all sides of disputes before flying off the handle online, Hell hath no fury like a customer scorned– at least those with broadband connections. All businesses should be aware of this power in the hands of their customers, and think twice about letting them walk out of the store disgruntled, or letting a dispute get out of hand.

Not because they might write me a letter, but because they might not.