A collaborative consumer protection and representation portal.

Author: Chris James

What NEED does this meet?

Your utilities companies, your internet company, your mobile phone companies, your online bank, your home shopping supermarket, and a hundred other companies who you do remote business with in your lifetime all keep records of you.

They keep records of your billing details, personal details, and crucially – your conversations with them. The phrase ‘I’m just looking back through your notes’ must be familiar to everyone who has ever had an ongoing complaint with a major service provider.

Consumers have a need to be able to keep the same records of their conversations. Contemporaneous written notes can help you keep your story straight when having to explain it for the tenth time to the tenth different person you’ve been put through to. They can also help if you ever have to resort to small claims court action.

What is the APPROACH?

I propose a free website where members of the public can set up a private ‘weblog’ of *their* conversations with these firms.

The website would also have a collaborative element allowing users to get assistance on consumer issues that they face (see ‘Benefit’).

What are the BENEFITS to people?

I have used this technique recently using my own wiki, and it has resulting in me getting back £200 owed to me by a service provider. This issue dragged on for about 8 months and without notes I would have been floundering to remember who said what and when.

I consider myself to be fairly knowledgeable of my rights as a consumer and have some ability at representing myself, but I know from personal experience how hard it is stand up for yourself when being brick-walled by ‘our company policy’ or ‘we can’t do that because of the Data Protection Act’ (usually spurious).

Therefore I consider that the social networking aspect of the web makes for some interesting possibilities to help people support each other in these situations:

For example the site could be given further utility by allowing users to invite members of a panel of ‘helpers’ to review their log. These helpers could evaluate the complaint, contact the company involved and try to work out a settlement. Such helpers could have legal or business knowledge, prior experience of arbitration or consumer advocacy, or may just show a talent for getting results in helping others.

For companies that remain unresponsive, a ‘weblog of shame’ could be maintained, along with contact details of the trading standards office local to that company etc.

Conversely the site could invite users who successfully resolve their complaints to publish a brief ‘howto’ to assist other users with the same or similar complaints, and shine some light on to providers who are willing to work out reasonable solutions to problems their users face.

What is the COMPETITION?

A number of sites provide consumer services in various forms, but most are related to media outlets (“Watchdog” and various newspapers), or NGOs eg “Consumer Association/Which?”. Additionally most employ some editorial process over which issues get their attention. This site would give utility to all users, not just those selected.

What BUDGETS & LOGISTICS are required?

There is clear utility in something like this, and it could be built as a simple web application using standard tools with relative ease. Recruiting and maintaining responsible ‘helpers’ may be an issue – although I am not sure of the need to have this as a formal process. What about allowing individuals to maintain their own profile and build up their own reputations for helping – and allow users to invite the ‘helpers’ that they see fit? And, as well as other site users, individuals could invite family and friends to help them out.

It would be a good fit with mySociety as your charitable status would allow you to oversee this site without personal agenda and ensure that the quality of contributions is kept high and fair.


  1. I like this – but much more in its aspect of sharing information. The idea of a site where everyone publically logs their interactions with companies is great.

    Share information, like phone numbers to call to make things happen, problems lots of other people are also having, direct solutions, ways to trick the telephone call centre system into doing what you want, prices and quotes of products. etc.

  2. What an excellent idea. In principle it could be eminently workable in terms of achieving positive and tangible outcomes for “the little people” like us in dealing with the dubious practices which seem to proliferate within the public, private and corporate sector.

    Based on my experiences, might I might add includes Trading Standards since 1997, contemporaneous notes inevitably seem to become twisted manipulations with little or no bearing on the reality.

    On the one hand I can see considerable benefits for us and yet on the other publication where a case might end up in court could be detrimental. If the person is aware of that potential risk and doesnt mind then that would be fine.

  3. Another major benefit which will result from a site of this nature is that we will then be able to have living testimony of the reality of compliance with corporate governance in practice.

  4. The ideas for this proposal would also fit very nicely with the “lets boycott it” proposal.

  5. Thanks for your kind comments Wendy.

    I agree, contemporaneous notes are not going to be the magic bullet in every situation; I do think that they serve a purpose though, especially if users are encouraged to write them as an aide memoire with factual information taken from the call.

    Ultimately the point of the site would be to encourage some form of mediation in order to mark the issue as ‘resolved.’ As you say, the consumer benefits and the company is acknolwedged in public as “a good corporate citizen.”

    Failing that, there’s the ‘naming and shaming’ aspect which as you point out would work well with the ‘lets boycott it’ proposal.

    Sites like del.icio.us and digg have shown how sites can harness their userbase to decide which content is most popular, and the same technique could be used here. The companies most ‘named and shamed’ would be most prominent on the site, giving them an increased incentive to get their house in order. MySociety may also be able to work with the traditional media to highlight the issues on the site and their own role. Ultimately this should raise MySociety’s general profile as wells as helping consumers with the issues at hand.

    Talking of the traditional media, Consumer affairs have been successfully taken up by print and TV – Which? magazine or Watchdog for example – but I’ve not seen so many successful attempts to transpose this in to the online media. A consumer affairs website that works on an almost ‘democratic’ basis would be of great personal use to me and I hope someone picks the idea up even if it isn’t MySociety.

    I just wish I’d have thought of a catchier title 🙂 Any suggestions anyone?

  6. I am not sure if you are aware, (forgive the egg sucking lesson) but there are legislations in place to try to control customer contact/ records, just no one website for poor consumers to check out and understand their rights.
    That is how I feel this portal could be of use to consumers.

    (not sure it is catchier, but ‘Call Centre Complaint Portal – know your rights!’ may be an idea?)

    The FSA legislation (since 2005) applies to all companies involved in finance (credit card, mortgage, insurance etc) (this includes Tesco and Powergen etc now, plus any other company offering credit cards etc as part of their portfolio)
    A part of this lengthy legislation is to retain voice recordings of all conversations. You should be able to ask for this evidence (try to note down times of calls and ask for the name of the agent you are talking to to assist tracking)
    This can cost the contact centres a fortune (£500k for one of my customers with 800 agents, so lord knows for the big boy 2000 seat contact centres!)
    If they can’t provide this they are in breach and can be reported (mention this and you should get you your cheque quick-sharp!)
    Changes in technology (converged voice over IP) meant improvements for contact centres in one way, but the introduction of which meant voice recording/ outbound diallers etc suddenly stopped working. They are currently playing technological catch up.

    DMA (Direct marketing Association): Strict rules for their members exist re contact/ silent calls/ calling within certain hours (particularly at weekends)and gaps between calling back. They take compliants very seriously.

    Ofcom: This is the big one.
    Have just introduced new legislation re automated outbound dialling (you know, when the phone rings and stops just as you get to it/ when you pick it up there is no-one there, when it happens 8 times in a row on a Saturday etc)which is hitting contact centres hard. If the impeach them they are liable for fines of up to 20% of their annual revenue.

    These legislations are too lengthy to go into here, but maybe an ‘idiots guide’ could be produced so people know who to compalin to to get something done.

    What you seem to be focussing on is ‘corporate amnesia’, where you speak to multi agents and none have your history to hand? (even when you frustrating tap in your 16 digit card number whilst in expensive 0870 queue for agents!)
    This can be rectified by technology, but it is sometimes too costly/technically prohibitive (have to integrate their database platform, sometimes on an archaic old legacy platform, with their contact centre agent desktop computers.)
    It is called CTi. (mind you, I know of contact centres who implement it incorrectly anyway and totally waste their investment!)

    Just bear in mind though that these companies face massive financial and technical issues to successfully role out improved technologies to meet these legislations. I work in the contact centre industry trying to advise contact centres on best practices.
    Changing one element does often mean another platform suddenly stops working. It is a minefield for them.


  7. Thanks Niki,

    I was aware of some of the legislation, but your industry insight is fascinating.

    I like your idea of a ‘best practices’ website with this information presented in a consumer friendly format.

    Would you be able to drop me an email, mail@NOSPAMchrisjames.me.uk. If myspace decide against this idea I’d be interested in setting up a best practices site myself.



  8. Sounds like a good idea, but maybe try to be more positive? As well as a name-and-shame list, how about a place for users to post goodnews stories, such as where problems are solved quickly….it could even be automated based on how many calls are logged by the user before a given problem is considered solved – aggregate for all customers of each company and you have a simple and impartial ranking system (could be the same implementation for the name-and-shame list I guess).

  9. I realy like the sound of this, I tried to set something similar up a while back but with the addition of a call recording element(see below). I’d realy like to see someone succeed in this space! please let me know if I can help.

    News Release
    Tuesday 27 July 2004, 7:00 GMT Tuesday 27 July 2004
    Registered Call Ltd

    Registered Call to Give Consumers Control With New Breed of Watchdog

    LONDON, July 27 /PRNewswire/ — Registered Call launches today a new service which allows consumers to record calls that will evidence poor customer service. The recording service and consumer forum offers UK consumers a way to protect themselves from businesses that promise services and do not deliver. Simple to use, consumers dial the Registered Call number and are connected to their desired number via the service. Once connected, calls are recorded and stored as tamper proof copies for six months. Calls are retrievable via telephone or the Registered Call website. Using complaint templates on the site, the small .wav file recordings are attached and easily emailed to businesses, government leaders or any relevant authority to evidence substandard service and to assist as backup to claims.

    Recordings will evidence telephone conversations making businesses accountable for the services and levels of service that they agree to provide. Using the service nicknamed, “the nation’s ear-witness,” consumers can take action and show others the type of treatment they have received.

    The Registered Call Forum is a place for consumers to then discuss their problems with others, vent their frustrations and act as a meeting ground for those wishing to pursue collective action against unscrupulous companies. The site will offer consumers: advice on how to complain and to whom, ratings of companies providing inadequate service and statistics generated from consumer usage across the UK.

    Service in the UK has been called unsatisfactory, inefficient and frustrating. Consumers regularly accept loss and avoid the hassle of pursuing inefficient service, as this may be a further waste of time and money. David Hume, founder of the company, comments on his motivation for creating the service: “After a serious car accident in the Namibian desert, I tried calling my medical insurance provider’s hotline only to be put on hold for fifteen minutes, after which my calling credit expired and I was left stranded. All the while the recorded message was sweetly repeating that my call was important to them?! Hume adds, “Many people have had similar experiences of appalling service but there is no proof that any of these incredible situations ever happened, until now.” From landlords to big banks, Registered Call is looking to help protect the consumer with its service.

    To test the service dial +44(0)871-550-2929 or visit RegisteredCall.com for more information

    Distributed by PR Newswire on behalf of Registered Call Ltd