While companies, especially computer makers, have been eager to promote the Internet as a global bazaar and amusement park rolled into one, they are quickly learning that there’s a little more to it than that. The tools that are supposed to help the customer are the same ones that can empower the unhappy consumer. Likewise, a slick new Web site can do a lot for customer relations, but if the support/complaint department isn’t up to snuff, the damage is already done.

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Companies are discovering that not only are there customers who are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, but also that it isn’t that difficult for them to air damaging claims in public. A well-presented complaint site can be the equivalent of a flaming arrow sailing over the ramparts.

As the number of consumer complaint Web sites multiplies, some companies are taking action by either addressing the problems in-house or battling online complainers via legal channels.

I have to confess there have been times when I read the shrill online testimonies of wronged customers and I find my sympathies going to the target companies. Guess I don’t have much of a future in customer relations. In the era of victimization, crank cases are milking “the customer is king” rule to the extreme.

For better or for worse, the Web is the perfect vehicle for wronged customers. The volume of online consumer voices in Japan is still relatively low, but the voices are definitely out there, raising a diverse range of issues.

Some sites take the “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” approach. Rather than singling out the villains, they emphasize the prize players at the All-Japan User Support Ranking page.

Though the tone is somewhat light, a forum at the Kojin Taxi no Oyaji site is interesting because it pits customers against drivers, each posting their complaints regarding the other. If only consumer relations could be so open and easy.

Other sites are less diplomatic. Disgruntled NTT customers can log onto a public bulletin board within the site NTT Daikirai (I Detest NTT). The posted beefs run the gamut — everything from high set-up fees to defective telephone cards.

Then there is the Web page innocuously titled “Regarding Toshiba’s ‘After Service'”. On it a nameless customer, let’s call him Mr. Claimant, recounted the poor service he had received while attempting to have his video cassette recorder repaired. It was a fairly mundane problem (involving the image quality), one that involved no scams or threats to public safety.

So why did this Web page, which only went up in early July, register over 6 millions hits this month and receive major media coverage?

This virtual David landed the decisive blow by uploading a sound file in which he was rudely rebuked by a Toshiba employee. This was the final straw after a series of phone calls to other Toshiba support representatives. I’m not talking about clumsily used keigo; the representative’s language is clearly antagonistic. According to a report last week in the news weekly Shukan Asahi (under the headline of “The Internet is scary!”), the Toshiba employee with whom Mr. Claimant spoke was a person whose duties include dealing with sokaiya (extortionists), i.e., he was paid to talk tough.

The word “claim” is used as a loanword in katakana, and the nuance behind the word kureemaa isn’t good. In Japanese, a claimer is basically a whiner. The Toshiba employee said the caller wasn’t a customer, he was “a heavy claimer,” who was obstructing their business.

So the kureemaa played hardball. Toshiba initially threatened to take legal action but after meeting with Mr. Claimant and posting a public apology (that stated that the service rep’s language was “inappropriate,”), the case was dropped. In turn, Mr. Claimant removed the telltale phone recording, but a description of recent events and his commentary on media reports are still available online.

While Toshiba certainly got more negative response than it bargained for, Mr. Claimant also seems to be overwhelmed by the response. He might be seen as a guerrilla consumer by some, but one suspects that he didn’t do it merely for the attention. The 38-year-old salaried worker has made a point of keeping his identity a secret, naturally since his own company’s “face” is at risk.

Too bad Mr. Claimant couldn’t have used one of the many online consumer liaisons available. At sites such as Caveat Emptor, Fightback.com or the Consumer Complaint Resolution complaint experts will, for a fee or free of charge, register complaints for disgruntled customers.

It’s clear that the recent hijacker of the All Nippon Airways jumbo wanted attention. While he was reportedly suffering from psychological problems and believed that he could fly a jet because of his experience with flight simulation games, he also had another motivation. He claimed that his attempts to alert officials of a security hole at Tokyo’s Haneda airport had fallen on deaf ears.

His action was a tragic one, a hijacking that resulted in the death of an ANA pilot. Of course, the consequences of these two stories are incomparable, but in both cases complaints and warning signs were ignored or neglected.

In a wire story, a neighbor was reported as saying that the hijacker was unable to distinguish between the virtual world of the Internet and reality. Perhaps the neighbor couldn’t distinguish between computer games and the Net, but the comment grazed another new reality: If it’s attention you want, you don’t need to hijack a jumbo jet.