Jonathan Woolsey of St. Louis Park knows how to complain. Not the whiny, it's-a-bummer-to-be-me kind, but the effective, consumer-take-charge kind.
He contacts the usual suspects -- the Better Business Bureau or the Minnesota attorney general's office -- and he checks social networking sites such as LinkedIn or Facebook to find a business' customer relations representative.
"Demanding to speak with the company's president is overrated," said the insurance claims consultant and law student. "I've had better luck with middle management."
One option that the discriminating complainer hasn't tried yet is posting on websites such as My3cents.com or Complaints.com. They're among dozens of consumer complaint websites that have sprung up on the Internet. Some focus on a specific product, such as automobiles (www.carcomplaints.com), or an individual financial institution. The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) recently looked at more than a dozen such sites and evaluated six of them for effectiveness and ease of use based on the thousands of complaints posted on the sites.
The CFA determined that although the sites can be valuable for a shopper trying to decide whether to buy a service or product, there is little evidence that they help consumers solve complaints. Consumers telling of horrific experiences at a complaint site shouldn't expect that a bank's representatives, for example, are trolling the site looking for unhappy customers. In fact, the CFA's analysis showed that only a small number of businesses, usually local services, take the time to record responses.
The sites also fail to do a good job of teaching consumers how to complain effectively. Only My3cents.com offers a "my consumer tools" menu that directs consumers to state and local agencies. Most of the sites, which are run by relatively small companies, do little more than log complaints from the weary, the scammed, the ripped-off.
From the business side
Best Buy doesn't regularly check the sites that the CFA evaluated, said Lisa Smith, vice president of customer care at the electronics retailer. But it does check other sites and will respond to a consumer if a Best Buy representative thinks the dialogue can be constructive. If a consumer is extremely upset, the company might choose to continue the discussion offline, said Smith.
Smith said she likes the engagement that the complaint sites provide, but thinks they are one-sided. While any business can respond to a post, some sites refuse to allow a post to be edited or deleted. (Of the six sites that the CFA looked at in depth, only www.my3cents.com, complaintsboard.com and complaints.com allow complainants to edit or delete entries after posting.)
Smith said consumers would be better off finding the right forum for engagement. Best Buy has its own public forum for consumers at www.forums.bestbuy.com. The site asks for consumers to post tips, ideas and opinions. Most of the posts are comments or questions about products. Complaints are included, too, said Smith. Of the 2.5 million posts on the community forum in 2009, 40 percent were related to customer service and 60 percent to products, she said.
And while posting on the venting sites might be popular, it hasn't resulted in fewer complaints to traditional outlets. The Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota has seen the number of complaints rise steadily every year, said Barb Grieman, vice president.
That's one reason why Grieman isn't a big fan of the complaint sites. And another?
"It's an angry world out there and people should get to air their complaints, but too often it's lopsided," she said. "Where is the chance for the service provider or retailer to give its side?"
Still, the complaint websites might be a last resort for a consumer whose pleas have been ignored. And they also offer a safe -- and very public -- place to vent. Does the woman who complained about the small size and big price of Dairy Queen's new Mini Blizzard on My3cents.com really expect to get a response from the company? Nah, she's just venting.