TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: Readying for a uVent U-turn

Complaints website uVent may be an example of history repeating with the startup seemingly, like its predecessor, struggling to balance customer and company interests.

People love to complain; so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the latest avenue to whinge about all things consumer has them flocking to it in droves. The object of their affection is the new consumer complaint resolving website, uVent, which officially launched this month and seems to be picking up momentum. This explosion of public interest nearly crashed the site last week after the free daily metro newspaper mX gave the website a plug on its front page.
In a space of two hours, around 70,000 people logged onto the site and after experiencing that kind of traffic boost uVent founder Anthony Mittlemark is justifiably confident that his new start-up is here to stay. However, this confidence should be somewhat tempered by the fate that befell its forerunner notgoodenough.org (NGE).

The 'Not Good Enough' parable

Mittlemark’s uVent isn’t the first consumer complaint website to start up in Australia.

Back in 2002 Dr Fiona Stewart created her own complaint website, notgoodenough.org (NGE). Stewart came up with the idea while she was stranded at Brisbane airport after the collapse of Ansett. She didn’t want to take her complaint to management and instead wondered what would happen if she took her complaint online.

What ensued was a partnership with current spokesman for NGE and co-founder, Guy Carvalho, and the launch of Australia’s first complaints website. The site was not solely a good Samaritan service, Stewart and Carvalho had plans to turn it into a thriving business.

"Any corporate can respond [to complaints on the site] for free,” Carvalho says.

But if they want to deal with the complainer off the website, they have to pay NGE for the users details.

A year after its launch NGE decided to expand its business model. The service wanted to charge companies to automatically have complaints forwarded to them, and for a while the model worked.

Twelve major Australian companies, including Telstra, McDonalds and Australia Post signed on to pay $100 per complaint notification to NGE. All seemed well for the start-up, but as time went on website views began to dwindle. According to Carvalho, this downswing was tied to the slowdown in media coverage.

The site first launched to a fanfare of media reports with a vast majority of them focused around the site’s ambitions and intentions. Carvalho notes that with each report the site would see a noticeable difference in the amount of views it received. As time went on the newsworthiness of the site began to fade, and with it so did the websites views and user engagement.

So the website grew into a habit of trying to cultivate as much media coverage as possible, and this eventually led them into regularly, publicly condemning their corporate clients to sneak a comment into a news story or current affairs report.

"The coverage that resulted from our criticism drove traffic, but it eventually drove corporates away,” Carvalho says.

Fast-forward to 2012, and NGE is not quite what it used to be, with 30,000 hits a month compared to the 60,000 hits in its heyday. The website is outdated and is primarily run by volunteers. Even its founder, Fiona Stewart has moved on to greener pastures, leaving Guy Carvalho to maintain the site for what he says is "good of the community”.

More than hot air

Mittlemark is aware of what happened to NGE but says his site operates on a different business model – uVent aims to force corporates to pay a subscription order to reply to the criticism on the site. Unlike NGE, it doesn’t give this function away for free.

Mittlemark adds that from a corporate perspective, uVent is all about acquiring your competition’s customers rather than replying to complaints. By locking out corporates who haven’t signed up for the website, it gives those who have the ability to easily steal their rival’s customers

It’s early days but Mittlemark is already seeing some signs of success. A News Limited report last week said that the site received 11,000 complaints in less than a week of its launch. On the income front, Mittlemark says that he is also close to signing at least one company from each of the site's six industry categories of complaints. He wouldn’t disclose which companies were signing up to the service.

However, one fact that could potentially undermine uVent’s potential success is that corporates are expending more energy to engage with customers online.

Telstra for instance employs up to 60 full-time staff to monitor all of its social media channels and reply to complaints. A spokesman for the telco said it spends millions of dollars ensuring that customers complaints are rectified either via social media, phone, online or via its physical retail stores.

Yet Mittlemark says they still aren't adequately addressing customers concerns.

"Just because you're monitoring what’s happening doesn’t mean you're resolving issues,” Mittlemark says.

He added that uVent also provides a better platform than social media sites in which companies can poach customers from their competitors.

Back to the future

It appears that uVent has already started to fall down the same slippery slope that its predecessor, notgoodenough.org tripped into.

uVent has already taken to Twitter to bolster support for the site. But in a bid to draw attention it has recently taken to publicly criticising companies over the net. For example, uVent wrote on Telco Dodo Australia last week:

"@DodoAustralia – took almost 21 minutes to find out that they could not provide the contact – why is it so hard to talk to someone at Dodo?”

uVent also tried to pound Telstra and Optus by targeting them in its initial launch press release saying the telcos had told their customers not to use the site.

The sledges don’t exactly endear the fledgling complaint site to its potential paying clients.

It seems that uVent is trying to become a bitey watchdog to draw angry consumers into using the site but at the same time it is attempting to tempt corporates to pay for its services. As NGE’s experience shows, it may be an impossible balancing act.

The site’s early success shows that it does have a place in a world where people are accustomed to displaying their views online. However, if the parable of NGR is anything to go by, and if uVent keeps brazenly condemning corporates, history could well repeat itself.

Related Articles