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Business to Consumer (B2C)

Unanswered Complaints Threaten Brands


Unanswered Complaints Threaten Brands

In June 1996, Jeremy Cooperstock flew United Airlines from Toronto to Tokyo. He had such a bad experience that he decided to write a complaint letter to United. A month passed and he received no reply, so he penned another complaint letter. Finally, in late-August, he received a form letter that did not address any of his complaints.

Angered by this treatment and bolstered by messages from colleagues who had also experienced poor service with United, Cooperstock took action.

In September he set up a ‘Poor Show’ web page on the University of Toronto site.

The site described poor service and lack of customer orientation at United and encouraged other disgruntled passengers to share their experiences.

The page grew in popularity and finally United acted. In March 1997, United threatened the University of Toronto with legal action if the page remained on its server. Cooperstock withdrew the page, but set up his own site, untied.com. The page still exists and has attracted thousands of visitors. It provides hundreds of stories claiming United’s incompetence and represents an independent, and therefore damning, indictment of the service levels at the troubled airline.

In London in 1995, Simon Kirkby took out an adaptable pension plan with Allied Dunbar. Over the next seven years Kirkby paid in £3227 into the scheme. By December 2002 he was a little alarmed to discover that his pension was worth about £1600.

He called Ray, the salesmen who sold him the pension. Ray blamed the bear market and went to great lengths to point out that charges for the pension had little to do with its poor performance.

Kirkby was confused by this, because if he had invested the money in any of the major markets in 1995 his investment would have increased significantly.

It was impossible for Kirkby to calculate the effect of the fees on his pension, because Allied Dunbar – and Zurich, which later acquired the company – refused to inform him how much he was paying in fees.

Kirkby fired off a letter of complaint, which was rejected by Zurich.

In response, Kirkby set up badpension.com. The page contained a Powerpoint presentation with audio clips for Ray the salesman and graphical data showing the poor performance of Zurich’s pension versus other investment options. At its peak the site received more than 50,000 hits a week.

Cooperstock and Kirkby offer two very pertinent lessons for marketers.

First, neither of these web pages would have existed had the companies involved handled the complaints in a more understanding manner. Negative customer experiences are to some degree unavoidable, but not responding to the complaints about these experiences in an appropriate way is inexcusable.

Second, viral marketing works both ways. It is not just a tool used by companies to spread corporate-sponsored information. With a little help from the internet, it also allows individual customers to damage and potentially destroy multinational organizations.

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