Complain, complain, complain. Sometimes it seems that's all people do anymore. We complain about the weather, traffic, airline hassles, bosses, employees, spouses, children, the President, Congress, voters, lawyer fees, doctor waits, auto repair … the list could go on and on.

Enlightened organizers in Birmingham, England, put together a Complaints Choir in 2005 so fellow complainers could break out in song. The idea proved so popular that similar choirs have since arisen in cities in Finland, Belgium, Germany, Norway, Hungary, Israel, Australia and, yes, the United States (www.complaintschoir.org).

Among the activities that information technology facilitates is, you guessed it, complaining. Aside from the emotional release of being able to vent, complaining has a flip side, a positive benefit. Reading a large enough number of complaints about a particular product or service can help you be a savvier consumer. Complaints can also send notice to manufacturers, service providers, politicians and quite possibly even entire countries to remedy that which needs remedying.

The first online complaint no doubt took place very shortly after the invention of public online communications back in the early 1970s. Today, instead of 110 baud connections using a time-sharing mainframe computer system, we can gripe with high-speed communications and devices, from personal computers to personal digital assistants.

Sometimes individual complaints achieve semilegendary status, such as the YouTube video of a cable repairman falling asleep in a customer's house and the recording of an AOL service rep refusing to let a customer cancel his account. Nothing beats the video or sounds of multimedia to dramatize a problem.

But words can help too. Be careful, though. In our litigious society, some smaller companies, and sometimes larger ones too, try to stifle communication through lawsuits and other legal intimidation. “Just the facts, ma'am,” rather than an expletive-strewn flame, is also more effective in getting yourself taken seriously and in getting the results you want. Spell out what went wrong and what you think they should do about it.

The first place to complain is at the doorstep of the problem-causer. A number of companies have forums at their websites or at least a customer service e-mail address posted there. Don't be too surprised, though, if your e-mail gets ignored or if you get a canned response without any action taking place.

Next, do a Google search to see if someone has put up an independent site specifically for complaints directed at the company you have a gripe about.

A few years ago, Forbes magazine rated such “rogue” sites for ease of use, number of posts, entertainment value and other factors, and among those receiving top scores were AllstateInsuranceSucks.com (www.allstateinsurancesucks.com), NoPayPal (www.paypalsucks.com) and ameXsuX.com (www.amexsux.com).

Other options are public discussion groups. The two easiest ways to search for relevant usenet and e-mail-based groups are Google Groups (groups.google.com) and Yahoo Groups (groups.yahoo.com). You can also use Google Blog Search (blogsearch.google.com) to find relevant blogs.

Perhaps the best way to get the big boys to sit up and take notice is to get your story picked up by a newspaper, magazine or other traditional media outlet. Short of sending out scores of press releases, another option is to get a popular social news site such as Digg (www.digg.com) or Reddit (www.reddit.com) interested in your story.

If you're buying from a website, check out one or more of the Web-based consumer-protection services to see if the vendor has a record of unresolved complaints against it and for fraud-prevention tips in general.

Such services include BBBOnLine (www.bbbonline.org) and National Fraud Information Center (www.fraud.org).

Smart companies, instead of ducking for cover, harness the power of online complaining. They create monitored online communities as well as participate in usenet newsgroups, e-mail-based discussion groups, independent Web communities and popular blogs. Hewlett-Packard is one of many forward-thinking companies that has representatives respond to complaints at independent forums.

If you do this, do what HP does and make sure your reps identify themselves. There's little more underhanded, online, than a company planting “sockpuppets” out there to create fake testimonials, and online users have a way of eventually sniffing this out.

Active online users are considered “e-fluentials.” Their opinions have more legs than the opinions of others and can percolate upward, reaching many more people. The best corporate approach toward complainers is to show them respect by engaging them, acknowledge their gripes, try to find a way to help solve their problems or at least explain your take on the issue, avoid exchanging acrimony and disengage.


Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. Contact him at reidgold@netaxs.com or http://www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.