Guest column: Customer woes: The new big Internet industry

In the good old days, an unhappy customer would typically complain to 10 friends about a lousy experience with your product. In the Internet era, that number can easily bump up to 10 million.

That's because customers -- with the help of new Web sites such as Epinions -- are acquiring the ability to communicate their complaints or praises about your company to the world.

It was eBay that really pioneered this idea. EBay realised that the biggest roadblock to its success was the lack of trust between the buyers and sellers. For example, how could someone bidding on a point-and-shoot camera have confidence that the seller was being truthful about the camera's condition?

EBay's solution is the feedback forum. Auction winners are asked to rate their experiences as positive, neutral or negative and to provide a dozen words describing the transaction. Buyers' comments range from topics like the product's quality to how well the shipment was packed.

Many eBay sellers have accumulated hundreds of comments on the quality of their products and service. This is their form of a brand. Sellers with a history of positive comments can command a better price. Sellers with negative comments are shunned.

You may think this doesn't affect you, since you have no intention of setting up a site for your customers to openly complain about you or grade your performance.

Well, if you don't do it, someone else surely will.

A growing number of Web sites are being established that solicit advice from consumers about which products are good and which should be avoided. The goal is to build databases of millions of comments, making the site irresistible for buyers seeking input on which bread maker, sneakers or automobile to purchase. The appeal to advertisers is obvious.

The most ambitious reputation manager so far is Epinions (, which recently launched its "preview" Web site. While the company is starting off with the expected categories, such as consumer electronics, computers or automobiles, the operators intend to eventually build massive databases that can even offer advice on the best dry cleaner or dentist in a particular neighborhood.

All visitors to the site are encouraged to share their views, and other users vote on whether the advice is useful. Contributors with opinions that are seen as good value can receive cash rewards depending on how often their reviews are read.

The upshot of sites such as Epinions is that soon almost every business, no matter how big or small, will acquire a digital reputation available to anyone in the world with access to the Web. Smart businesses will recognise that the best assurance of positive comments is simply to provide excellent value to the customer in the first place.

Don Tapscott is chairman of the Alliance for Converging Technologies. Contact him at

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