Do Web-based forums cause problems?

Do Web-based forums cause problems?

A friend of mine recently received a freelance assignment to write about how vendors are using the Web to build a better sense of community among their users, and he asked if I had run into any good examples he could use. Unfortunately for him, after considerable thought all I could produce was a list of companies that no doubt regret having made it easy for their customers to talk to -- and complain to -- one another.

I bring this up because I suspect the folks at Philips Consumer Electronics might be feeling the same way after an examination of several issues about the Velo handheld PC that were originally raised on Philips' Web-based discussion group. After all, without the posting there that prompted both Philips supporters and detractors to contact me, I would probably have heard very little about loose Velo hinges or Windows CE 2.0 upgrades.

The recent proliferation of Web-based vendor forums is having a real impact on the Gripe Line. Vendor forums aren't a new thing, of course, but Web-based discussions can draw a much larger percentage of customers than a newsgroup or a CompuServe forum. As such, they can serve as a valuable tool for the vendors in promoting their products, explaining their future plans and policies, and receiving and responding to customer feedback. As Philips discovered, however, this can cut both ways.

Down the garden path

This is hardly the first time a Web-based forum has played a role in a Gripe Line topic. Until my friend asked me for help, it had not occurred to me how many times in the past six months or so my gripe cases have led me through a forum filled with angry customers. Unlike the Philips case, most did not involve someone explicitly suggesting in the forum that unhappy users contact me (although that may actually work to the vendor's advantage by providing me with input from happy customers as well). With Western Digital a few months ago, for example, the great majority of gripes I received pointed me to the discussion group on Western Digital's Web site so that I could, like them, see that they were not the only ones having the same type of trouble.

When people discover that they are not alone in their suffering, it galvanises them to take action. And there's another consequence for the vendor -- aside from the fact that those customers may contact me or others in the trade press, as well as consumer groups, and government agencies. Knowing that it is not just their problem gives customers a great deal more righteous authority in dealing directly with the company and demanding redress.

Given that vendors have to be well aware of the possible drawbacks of an open forum for their customers, why do any of them do it? Philips' answer to this question is quite interesting. Ginger Moschetta, marketing manager for Web solutions and Philips' primary presence on the Velo discussion group, says the company considers having an open forum for customers a competitive advantage.

Although Philips is planning some changes to the forum to address complaints that there is not enough participation from the company, Moschetta says the company remains committed to the open-discussion concept.

It appears then, that Philips is making a sincere effort to use the Web to build a better sense of community among Velo users -- a little too late, but exactly what my friend was trying to find. In light of that, what can we say about last week's complaints? My opinion is, although some of the early Velo buyers have indeed found themselves in a less-than-ideal situation, it's hard to say it's any worse than what early adopters of any new technology might expect. Add to that the fact that the company has made it easy to air grievances, and I think we have to give Philips a clean bill of health for customer relations.

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