Johannesburg - One of the most therapeutic things you can do if you’ve been badly let down by a product or service is log on to hellopeter.com and let it all out in a complaint. Look at the rants and you can see how irritated many customers are with all kinds of companies, big and small, some of them household names that spend a fortune on advertising how superior they are to the competition.
But the question is, does complaining on hellopeter.com get you anywhere? Hellopeter.com can and does get good results. Roelof Fuls got a very prompt response when he bought a new fridge that literally had a rotten egg in it.
“I complained, but got nowhere until I wrote on hellopeter.com. The company solved the problem pronto,” he says.
When Tiffany Markman, a serial hellopeter.com user, complained about a “truly shoddy hotel experience”, a mid-level marketing person contacted her.
“Pathetic, and I said so. It was then escalated to management and handled brilliantly,” she recalls.
At worst, complainants are left in the dust of a stock response or none at all. Markman says you can tell if you’re going to get a response by looking at the company’s track record, because responsive and non-responsive companies are listed on the site.
“If they’re responsive, they’re more likely to escalate the complaint and conduct a real investigation,” she says.
Hot or cold responses aside, there’s no doubting that hellopeter.com is a cracker of an idea, and a powerful arrow in the bow of the consumer.
And while the service may be fairly new to many people, it has actually been around for a long time, long before Facebook, Twitter and blogging.
It has evolved to become the biggest customer service site in the world, with 2 070 companies subscribed and a hit rate of 18 million a month. Little wonder that it is an invaluable source to journalists, with M-Net’s Carte Blanche using it from time to time to initiate investigations.
“I started the hellopeter.com 13 years ago in 2000, the year of the dotcom crash,” says its brainchild, Peter Cheales, an international speaker on customer service, and the author of the bestselling book, I Was Your Customer (2004).
“After I completed my MBA at Wits Business School, I set up an ad agency, Adlab, which I had for 10 years. My book then took me in on an entirely different career path, launching me on to the international speaking circuit. People would come to me after my talks and tell me about their sorry consumer tales and that’s when I got the idea to start this forum,” he says.
Despite having no computer programming background, Cheales found the IT resources and started hellopeter.com (all the other obvious names had been taken). Success came slowly, especially in the beginning.
“It’s a chicken and egg thing. I had to get consumers who complain and suppliers who respond. The idea has to be bought into, and the dynamic created,” he says. One of the reasons for hellopeter.com’s success is the intention to be “constructive for the supplier, not destructive”, says Cheales.
“It’s a facility for suppliers to respond and interact with their customers, not just a channel for consumers to moan.”
Still, moan they do. A typical gripe, from an angry Bryanston resident complaining about Pikitup coming every two weeks to collect rubbish, goes: “I called Pikitup and requested to speak with a manager and was informed that they are short on vehicles and that is why there is no regular service. Should we pay only half the levy then for half service? AND FOR GOODNESS SAKE – PICK UP ALL THE RUBBISH!!! AT LEAST!!!! Very very angry residents.”
Companies have customer call centres and you can e-mail a customer care officer, but the beauty of hellopeter.com is that you can complain publicly, and everyone out there can see how the company is responding.
Twitter and Facebook are also effective consumer tools, of course, and many social network converts say they are more effective. But hellopeter.com provides insight into a company’s behaviour over a period of time, so it is a powerful search engine if you wish to investigate a product or service before buying it.
“This is pure data which is very valuable to companies and consumers alike,” says Cheales, who has a handful of IT developers driving the site. “There are no fewer than 750 000 pages of code on hellopeter.com,” he says.
Cheales, whose staff work independently like he does (from home in Saxonwold), has his team continually updating a database of individuals in subscriber companies dealing with complaints, “so the right person is getting the messages”.
“Automated responses drive me just as crazy as they do the complainant, and I try to make the company aware of this,” he says. As everyone in his team (which fluctuates between about five and eight) works independently, e-mail and Skype are much used facilities in the hellopeter.com world.
The business model is based on subscription fees from companies, big and small, that pay from between R420 to R20 000 a year, determined by the volume of customer reports written about the company. About 15 percent to 20 percent of the revenue is sourced from advertising on the site.
Some of the subscribers have been with Cheales from the beginning, and their loyalty exemplifies the value they clearly get from the service, even if much of the interaction between them and the customer is negative.
Explains Angelo Haggiyannes, spokesman for Auto & General Insurance: “Even when a complaint is lodged, our customers and prospective customers will see that we take great care in dealing with these matters.
“We make contact with a customer regarding any complaint within two hours and strive towards a first-call resolution. So thanks to hellopeter.com, prospective and current customers can see how important service is to us.”
One of the longest subscribers to hellopeter.com is Spur steak ranches.
Customer care manager Bev Cornwell says it is an important vehicle, along with Twitter and Facebook, to engage their customers.
“We enjoy getting feedback from customers, positive or negative. It’s important for us to assure the customer that something will be done about their complaint,” she says.
Getting hellopeter.com to work optimally, however, was no easy ride, Cheales admits.
Creating a great service and achieving a good balance between company and customer was one thing, making it profitable was quite another.
“It used to work like a video contract, where you pay upfront for points. The company would be debited per report, but if there was a fallacious report (fake or prank reports), they’d have to be re-credited,” he says.
Cheales even considered pulling the plug on it at one point. “I was haemorrhaging about R40 000 a month on it, on development, maintenance and admin, and that was back in 2003/4,” he says. In 2005, he called in a team of industry experts who redesigned the model, basing it on annual subscriptions.
“I worried that the subscribers wouldn’t go for that, but they did. Only then did the site start producing satisfactory revenue,” says Cheales.
Hellopeter.com copycats have come and gone since, but Cheales remains a global leader in his initiative. And it has allowed him to pull back from public speaking – which entails a great deal of travel – and enjoy family life with his wife, Paolo, and two young sons, Oliver and Ben. “I’m a devoted father, so it’s important for me to spend a lot of time with my boys. We sit down to at least one meal together every day,” he says.
Does he make use of his own service? “I don’t take advantage of it, no. Freebies are regularly offered to me, but I don’t accept them. It’s important to remain impartial,” he says.
Cheales is happy to identify one company, however, that really makes the customer service grade in his opinion.
“Coca-Cola, hands down. I once did a speech for them at a resort near Cairo, but had one day at leisure. They’d noticed this on my itinerary, and arranged to have me fetched in a limo at my hotel and taken to see the pyramids and the Egyptian Museum of Cairo. No wonder they interview so many applicants just for the position of receptionist. Remarkable.” - The Star