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The Independent (UK): Hell hath no fury like a modern customer scorned

David Prosser,
Published: Jan 27, 2007

When commuters on rush-hour trains from Bristol to Bath returned to work after the Christmas break, they had no idea that within weeks they would be leading the fightback for disgruntled rail passengers around the country. Yet such was the anger about the performance of First Great Western (FGW), which took over the running of the line in December, many passengers felt compelled to protest.

A group of regular commuters set up More Trains Less Strain, a campaign to force FGW to reinstate the carriages cut from certain services and to restore its predecessor’s timetabling arrangements. When the company failed to respond, the group launched direct action. It printed fake tickets, dubbing the company Worst Late Western, and on Monday urged passengers to present the tickets to guards rather than paying their fares.

Tony Ambrose, one of the founders of the group, claims more than 2,000 commuters joined the protest. “This has sent out a really strong message to First that commuters just can’t be taken for granted any more,” he says. “Things have to change – they cannot go on as they are.”

For its part, FGW says that only a handful of people refused to pay their fares, but the company has been rattled by the row. It has promised to restore some carriages to trains, having speeded up maintenance work on the stock.

The More Trains Less Strain commuters aren’t alone in taking action against companies with which they have issues. Consumer revenge comes in all sorts of guises, but while customers used to get mad, these days they’re much more likely to save their energy for getting even.

WEB RAGE

The internet has made it much easier for consumers to air their grievances to the widest possible audience. Word-of-mouth bad publicity is bad enough for a company that lets down a customer, but a website that gives people a forum to vent their spleen about perceived injustices can become a headache. One such site is www.ntlhell.co.uk which was launched by frustrated customers of ntl:Telewest, the supplier of cable TV, broadband internet access, and mobile and home phone services. The company has – rightly or wrongly – endured a poor reputation for customer service and this site allows customers to share their frustrations.

Current topics on the site’s chat forums include: “What a pile of horse crap ntl broadband is” and “Help! Despair! Billing Nightmare”. But the site also serves a positive purpose for the company, with useful advice on general technology issues and tips on how to contact the right bit of ntl:Telewest. Employees of the company have even been known to post their own tips on the site.

Ntl:Telewest has taken a relaxed view of the site, warning that it will take action against abusive or defamatory postings, but otherwise welcoming free speech. Not every organisation targeted by angry consumers has been so sanguine. NatWest Bank, for example, eventually succeeded in a legal battle to have www.natwestsucks. com closed down.

Other consumer revenge sites allow customers to share their tips on how to fight back, as well as to name and shame companies. For example, www.grumbletext.co.uk offers all sorts of advice on how to win compensation from companies that have misbehaved. Or there’s www.saynoto0870.com, which lists normal-priced phone numbers you can call to get through to companies that often only publish the details of expensive premium-rate lines.

CONSUMER BOYCOTTS

One of the most effective ways to punish companies for poor service – or for activities of which you disapprove – is to stop buying from them. “Withdrawing your financial support lets a company know that you are unhappy with it,” says Ruth Rosselson of Ethical Consumer magazine. “But make sure you let senior managers know what you’re doing – write to the company explaining why you’re boycotting it.”

Co-operative Bank, which produces an annual survey of how consumers behave, believes boycotts are becoming more common amongst people angry with companies, particularly for social or political reasons. It reckons 55 per cent of consumers avoided one or more companies last year simply on the basis of their reputations, up from 44 per cent previously.

The impact of such boycotts can be financially damaging for the companies concerned. Co-op reckons boycotts cost British companies pounds 3.7bn last year alone. “The figure may even be an underestimate,” says Barry Clavin, the bank’s ethical policy manager. “Boycotts become so ingrained in people that they stop even being aware that they no longer shop in a particular place.”

Some boycotts are hugely successful. Shell, for example, abandoned plans to sink its Brent Spar oil platform in the North Sea following a massive boycott from British customers.

On the other hand, the long-running campaign against Nestle has yet to persuade the company to stop selling baby milk powder to developing countries. And in some cases, campaigners believe boycotts can do more harm than good – Oxfam, for instance, has warned that while action against child labour is important, simply refusing to buy all goods produced this way will deprive families of crucial income.

Still, at the very least, boycotting a company that has mucked you around or behaved unethically is personally satisfying. All the more so for vengeful consumers who can persuade other people to join the boycott.

DIRECT ACTION

For the FGW customers, boycotts aren’t an option – many have no choice but to use the company’s train services to get to work. So direct action was taken.

In the 1990s, the charity Friends of the Earth successfully persuaded leading DIY chains to focus on selling timber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) as replaceable. Many shops felt they had no choice but to act after customers repeatedly queued up at their tills and then refused to pay for non-FSC timber.

Ben Bradshaw, the environment minister, is advising supermarket customers to take a similar ap-proach in the campaign a g a i n s t excessive packaging of g r o -ceries, w h i c h has a clear environmental impact. He advises angry shoppers to remove the packaging and deposit it at tills. If supermarket staff spend hours clearing up the mess, rather than getting shoppers through the tills, bosses will get the message, Bradshaw argues. It’s becoming more and more common for people to take matters into their own hands in this way, says the National Consumer Council, which last year published The Stupid Company, a report on how customers are being failed.

“We are seeing more and more service rage, with infuriated customers punishing companies for hopeless performance,” says a spokesman. “The scale of company ineptitude must amount to many billions of pounds of lost profits.”

WASTE THEIR TIME AND CASH

Complaining about a problem that a company has caused can sometimes seem like too much hassle, particularly if you think there’s no chance of winning redress. But complaining is a good form of consumer revenge because it costs companies time and money to deal with your case – particularly if you take the issue to an independent third party. For example, in the financial services industry, once you exhaust the complaints process at a regulated company, you have the right to take your case to the independent Financial Ombudsman Service. Doing so costs consumers nothing, but companies have to pay pounds 360 for every complaint received about them, whatever the outcome.

Similar systems operate in other industries too. The Association of British Travel Agents and the Association of Independent Tour Operators run arbitration schemes, where the bulk of the cost of investigating complaints is picked up by their members. Alternatively, you can complain about almost any company to Consumer Direct, a government-backed body that has access to Trading Standards officers.

TURN THE TABLES

Many companies are notorious for using small print of contracts to wriggle out of commitments or to charge customers extra. But sometimes it is possible to use the small print to your own advantage.

Martin Lewis, the founder of www.moneysavingexpert.com, says this is exactly what his site has set out to do. “MoneySaving is about being a sassy consumer,” he says. “Companies try to screw us for profits but MoneySaving shows you how to screw them back.”

Launched in 2003, the site now attracts more than 1 million visitors each month and features articles on how to get a better deal on everything from contact lenses to pet insur-save& ance. It also features forums in which users can share money-saving tips. In addition, Lewis sends out regular e-mails highlighting opportunities he has spotted. The latest of these includes, amongst other suggestions, advice on how to buy a new MP3 player for less than a fiver and on where to find flights to Europe for less than pounds 10.

In fact, MoneySaving-Expert is an organised version of a growing UK phenomenon. Consumers are using the internet and e-mails to tell each other how to exploit loopholes offered by companies. In one case, Thresher sent out an electronic voucher to a few key suppliers offering huge discounts in its off-licences. The vouchers were subsequently forwarded to millions of people around the UK and the shops were besieged.

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