Consumerist Editor Explores Dark Side

Ben Popken explains how to succeed as a modern consumer.

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Ben Popken, editor of the Consumerist, a site where mistreated consumers can express themselves, sees the dark side of our shopping culture every day. The tone of the site—summarized by its tagline, "Shoppers Bite Back"—clearly resonates with its hundreds of thousands of daily visitors. After all, who can resist watching, almost voyeuristically, as readers post the details of their (always negative) experiences. As a reader of the site myself, I asked Popken to answer a few questions. Excerpts from our E-mail conversation:

You receive thousands of complaints from consumers. What trends or commonalities do you see?

A lot of people are frustrated and don't know where to turn. They're bewildered. They try the routes they've been told to but still aren't getting satisfaction. I see a lot of people getting their E-mails ignored by companies. "It's company policy" [is often] used as the magic word to explain away bad customer service. With the complaints you receive, what percentage of the time would you say companies are in error? What about consumers?

Maybe 80/20, companies versus consumers. Are there common mistakes consumers make in dealing with companies?

The biggest mistake I see is people not behaving professionally. You really need to conduct it like a business transaction. Part of that is condensing your complaint. It's not necessary to tell the company the blow-by-blow story, just stick to the most essential facts. "My cable is out despite your repeated and failed attempts to fix it" can replace a single-spaced page of chronology. The other big mistake is stopping. A lot of people will get stuck in the first tier of customer service and rail and rail and not try to escalate to higher-up management after it's become abundantly clear that the low-level people can't help you. Which companies are the worst offenders? Are there any you now avoid because of what you see on the Consumerist?

We get a lot of complaints about Best Buy, Bank of America, and Comcast. If I was switching cellphone providers, I wouldn't think of trying out Sprint after what I've read from readers. Same thing for Capital One. Why do you think the Consumerist has become so popular? What about it resonates with people?

There's an epidemic of bad customer service. Everyone has a horror story to tell, and it's easy to relate to others' stories. I think people also get off on the schadenfreude from reading about someone else's troubles. But not only do we tell the crazy customer service stories—we're also educating our readers with real tools to help them immediately solve their problems. We're very focused on giving out actionable knowledge. Plus, my writers kick [butt] and have funny pictures, sometimes of cats. Have you become more successful at handling problems you have with companies because of your job?

Sadly, I never seem to have real problems with companies. It's unfortunate because it would make for a great post. What complaints do you hear about that most make you angry or really get under your skin?

Insurance companies arbitrarily denying claims. These are people's lives we're talking about. One blogger had the insurance coverage for an emergency abortion denied because some claims bot deemed it an "elective procedure." In another case, the insurance company kept insisting that the facility a woman got her gyno test at wasn't in network, and so they wouldn't pay for the test. But the place actually was. No amount of pleading could convince them, until we gave our reader the formula for E-mailing top-ranking executives at the company. It's sick sometimes that people have to resort to contacting upper management just to get basic customer service.