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Does complaining online work?

The Internet was supposed to empower the little guy. Before, if you had a bad experience or felt cheated by a large company, you would mostly have to fight the case on your own, writing letters that never got a response or endlessly calling 800 numbers only to reach a recorded message.

Not anymore. Now you can jump online and voice your displeasure for the whole world to see.

We’ve all heard the stories of multinational corporations cowering in the face of coordinated campaigns by angry moms and other pressure groups. If you have a problem, just power up the computer, register on one of the many online complaint boards, and make your case. Within a matter of days, contrite company representatives will be falling over themselves trying to make sure your problem goes away.

But does it actually work that way? Are online complaint boards protecting consumers’ rights and helping them get redress, or are they just for letting off steam – providing for a satisfying but ultimately unrewarding bitch session, as one irreverent commentator described it.

A new report issued this week from the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) suggests that we may have overestimated the power of the online rant, at least when it comes to complaining about corporate America.

Researchers for the consumer advocacy group looked at six of the most popular consumer complaint sites to evaluate their effectiveness and see if online complaining worked. The six sites were complaints.com, my3cents.com, complaintsboard.com, pissedconsumer.com, consumeraffairs.com and ripoffreport.com.

Between them , these six sites receive tens of thousands of complaints a year. Despite their obvious irritation and anger, most complainants seem remarkably objective in describing their grievances, typically supporting their case with a multitude of corroborating facts and figures.

However, despite the fact that many of the sites are specifically organized to allow companies to monitor and respond to complaints, the CFA report concludes that there is little evidence that the web sites are useful when it comes to resolving those complaints. In fact, several contain disclaimers to the contrary. Only a small number of businesses, usually local services, take the time to record a response.

So why then do tens of thousands of consumers record their complaints on these web sites each year? As a couple of the sites openly acknowledge, it is mainly to provide upset buyers with an opportunity to publicly vent and warn other consumers about what they consider to be unfair business practices or defective products.

So, if you have a complaint and want to share it with others, then the Internet will welcome you with open arms. But if you want resolution, then your state or local consumer protection agency is a far better bet!

Have you complained online? Have companies responded to your complaints? Share your experiences with The Online Mom!

Comment by Rusty, posted 4/8/2012, 12:28 AM:

I doubt complaining is going to do much to solve the world's problems, but when I get an opportunity to vent on sites like bitchnchicken.com, it does make me feel better.
Comment by Laura Pagles, posted 6/14/2010, 10:25 AM:

Online complaints aren't only about resolution, but also supporting fellow consumers. Our site (FatWallet.com) has multiple examples of discussions that warn fellow users against fishing and pyramid scams. That said, I have a coworker who tweeted a complaint about an experience at Home Depot. Home Depot was listening to online chatter, tweeted right back, and had a store manager call him regarding his issue. Laura P. @fatwallet
Comment by Jean , posted 6/13/2010, 7:24 AM:

Personally I feel that complaining in online forums where others gather in large masses isn't effective. Building a twitter following and then asking for help via tweet to the company involved is much more likely to generate help and promote good will between brands & consumers.
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