A mere decade ago, if a video provider offended a customer, the bad word-of-mouth might have been limited to the lady across the banana display in produce in the supermarket, or the other parents at the PTA.
Now, everyone can learn about a company's lapses. Disgruntled consumers turn frequently to the Internet as their global soapbox.
"I didn't go to the Better Business Bureau. Nine out of 10 times, they're worthless. The Attorney General's office? It takes too long just to get a response that you submitted a complaint," said Lee Richardson of Gilroy, Calif. "I went to the Internet because I wanted the word to get around as much as possible."
Richardson turned to the Web during a billing dispute with EchoStar Corp.'s Dish Network that took more than four months to resolve, and she remains fierce in her criticism of the company. When the senior citizen moved, her new location would not allow a Dish installation. She cancelled before the installer visited, but found that $75 had been deducted from her checking account. Richardson said that during the fight to get the amount refunded, she was short on grocery money.
Besides catharsis, Web-posters are also finding fellowship. Consumers share tales of sloppy installation, rapid price hikes, rude customer service and rebates that fail to appear.
But companies are finding the trend a little unsettling. The complaint sites are becoming incubators for class-action lawsuits. In a technologically smaller world, angry consumers may have believed their problem was a rare anomaly, but with the Internet, those consumers are discovering subscribers with similar gripes and joining them to find attorneys.
MOTIVATED, AND MAD
Though companies argue that disgruntled consumers only make up a minority of the subscriber base, the Web-posters are angry and motivated. Frequently, they post across several consumer gripe sites and urge other readers not to patronize the companies they target. Consumers are flaming offending companies at sites including bitchaboutit.com, thesqueakywheel.com, theripoffreport.com, badbusinessbureau.com, planetfeedback.com and sucks500.com (formerly corporateamericasucks.com).
Cable companies queried by Multichannel News
were aware of the sites, but didn't check them on a regular basis or try to get postings resolved and removed. That can be a difficult task since many of the messages carry little more than a first name and a city.
"It's not something we monitor. We're aware of customer feedback [directly to us] if we have a problem," said Mike Luftman, vice president of corporate communications for Time Warner Cable. What the company does monitor are newsgroups for Road Runner high-speed modem users. Those, he said, are a valuable source of identifiable customer feedback.
Representatives from Charter Communications Inc. and Cox Communications Inc. said employees occasionally monitor complaint sites, and may even post responses, but it's not a formal, scheduled process.
Companies also question the veracity of some postings.
"These sites are rife with innuendo and folks who just want to trash the competition. We've found a couple of competitors who use them to malign the service. We don't know how to circle them and let people know about the source of the complaint," said Andrew Johnson, vice president of external affairs for AT&T Broadband. "In cyberspace, it's so much smoke and not a lot of substance."
AT&T Broadband prefers to respond to more verifiable complaints, such as those forwarded to local consumer groups or to on-air TV ombudsmen. The company has a formal process for dealing with those, he said.
The Web sites would work for businesses if they had a formal structure for handling the complaints, he added, but most do not.
Consumers say they recognize individual sites might not have a formal resolution process, but they use them anyway because they are frustrated and unsatisfied with their vendor of choice and want to vent.
DBS OPS GET HIT
Perhaps the most frequent and vociferous complainers have targeted direct-broadcast satellite services, especially Dish Network. Web-posters say they have nowhere to turn because, unlike cable, there are no local regulators and therefore no possibility of a local arbitrator.
Many consumers said they have gotten nowhere trying to contact district attorneys or state attorneys general. Consumers have been told that these officials are hampered because satellite services are not local, so there are jurisdiction problems. Also, since Sept. 11, law enforcement resources have been busy elsewhere.
So consumers are resorting to self-help, seeking out class-action lawyers or responding to attorneys who track them down via their postings. MCN
identified at least four class-action firms collecting data on billing and service complaints posted by Dish customers.
Larry Dougherty, an investigator for the Tampa, Fla., firm of James, Hoyer, Newcomer & Smiljanich, confirmed that he was collecting data for a potential lawsuit. The firm has or is pursuing suits against magazine publishing companies, telemarketers and cosmetics makers for consumer abuses.
"We've heard a number of complaints and we're looking into it. We don't know what will come of it," he said. Out of fairness to Dish, he added, he would not describe the nature or number of those complaints.
Benjamin Schwartzman of The Grant Firm, class-action specialists in the Seattle area, said complaints to his office fall in two major categories. About 50 complaints have been received by his office from consumers who said they have received bills — sometimes in triple digits — for X-rated fare they deny ordering. The other group argues they complied with cancellation procedure after their contracts expired but continued to be billed for service or other fees.
Schwartzman believes those complaining of unordered pornography have a case, but sustaining a burden of proof to justify a class will be tough. Some of the questioned charges were incurred in the middle of the night, so most consumers would be unable to argue they were not at home. Because the potential plaintiffs are scattered throughout the country, it would be hard to put all the individuals on the stand. But a class is necessary because the losses alleged are so small per individual that it would be counter-productive for each person to sue Dish.
HOW DISH HANDLES IT
Schwartzman said he has spoken to other class-action firms about the complaints, but said he does not have a retainer from clients yet.
Attorneys aren't the only ones hearing from dissatisfied Dish customers. Complaints from around the country are being sent to local offices of the Better Business Bureau. The agency forwards those grievances to its Denver office, close to EchStar's Littleton, Colo., headquarters. The BBB will only accept signed complaints and will only handle cases regarding service charges if the dispute involves misrepresentation. Even with those limitations, the Denver office has received enough complaints to brand EchoStar's customer service record unsatisfactory.
Dish's complaint level is "unusual for a company in this industry," the BBB said in a statement. The bureau added that EchoStar is meeting with the organization on a regular basis to resolve the problems.
Marc Lumpkin, an EchoStar spokesman, said the BBB rating is a function of the bottleneck created by logistics. If all the complaints for AT&T Broadband, for instance, were funneled to Denver or to the office near that company's headquarters in Basking Ridge, N.J., it would have a similar rating, he suggested.
Lumpkin said EchoStar was initially unaware of BBB logistics, meaning complaints were piling up in Denver. Some were so old that the company had already resolved the problems before the BBB forwarded copies, he said.
He stressed EchoStar's record of customer service, noting the company has won two awards for service from J. D. Powers Associates and came in second this year, still tops among large service providers. Studies by Consumer Reports and a Michigan business school also rank the company highly, he noted.
As for specific complaints on Web sites, Lumpkin said consumers must pass three affirmation screens before an order is recorded for X-rated pay-per-view.
"If it's on the bill, someone in the household watched those," he said, adding that in all challenges, the company has proven that someone ordered the movie. At times, Dish representatives have even received apologies from complainants.
As for other complaints, the company's call centers feature escalation teams, to handle disputes that exceed the knowledge or authority of the initial customer contact.
EchoStar also stands behind the work of its local affiliates. Local hardware sellers bank smaller commission checks on sales today if customers they served yesterday are not happy and drop the service, Lumpkin said.
But Web-posters scoff at the company's stated devotion to good service.
"I will do anything in my power to let customers know what idiots they [EchoStar] are," said Jennifer Browning of Trenton, Ohio.
Browning claimed the company took $2,000 out of her checking account without authorization. The odd part: she's never had a dish in her life, she said, and has no idea how the company got her banking information.
Browning said EchoStar wants more of her banking information to resolve the dispute, but she's refused. She asked to see a contract with her signature on it, and the company refused.
Even after she reported the mistake, Dish tried to deduct more money from her account, forcing her to close her account and change banks, she added. She's still furious about what she perceives as a lack of desire on the part of Dish to verify her complaint.
Her Internet postings "really got the ball rolling," connecting her with other unhappy customers seeking legal representation.
"If we thought it would help, we would contact the attorney general, but we're not a priority with them," added Patricia Selzer of Chesterton, Ind.
She's been fighting over her dish for more than a year. According to Selzer, she purchased hardware that was so poorly installed the signal breaks up every two minutes. But before her problem could be resolved, the local affiliate declared bankruptcy.
"There's supposed to be a one-year guarantee and Dish won't honor it," she said. "I've been left high and dry."
Perhaps the most prolific poster is Jan Jones of Summers, Ark. Her family received a bill last January for $240 worth of porn. After the Arkansas attorney general's office failed to acknowledge her complaint, she turned to the Internet.
"I started posting on the Web and then I had hundreds of people e-mailing saying they, too, had been bogusly charged for porn and the customer service called them liars as well. Then I started to see a pattern," she said in an e-mail to MCN.
In October, the charge was removed from her account, but she is still promoting a class-action lawsuit.
The announcement of a possible merger between DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar prompted a new wave of disapproval.
"I was watching CNBC yesterday and saw where EchoStar bought Direct TV and I almost cried. If they buy them, I will have my roof top antenna back on the roof with my three channels because if you have ever dealt with Dish Network customer service reps you know it is not worth the mental anguish they put you through," Jones lamented via e-mail.
The Web-posters said they would forward their files to the Federal Communications Commission and U.S. House of Representatives committee examining the deal in an effort to block the merger.