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.