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Power to the Little People

E-business gives customers new leverage over corporate giants.

Speak Attack

In cyberspace, everyone can hear you scream.

When popular blogger Jeff Jarvis turned his attention away from politics and culture and instead devoted a portion of buzzmachine.com to complaining about his experience buying a Dell computer, he touched a nerve — more than 10,000 site visitors checked out that particular post and offered their own criticisms, prompting Dell to begin a program to monitor blogs and forward complaints found in them to its customer-service department.

The Internet has become a vast bully pulpit in which consumers can — and do — voice displeasure. “If they don’t like their experience with you,” says Fareena Sultan, associate professor of marketing at Boston’s Northeastern University, “they’ll transmit their feelings to blogs, chat rooms, message boards, and their own sites. In this world, a company’s image can go up or down in an instant.”

This poses a dilemma for companies: Do you join the fray or stay mum? When Volkswagen of America CEO Len Hunt saw his company getting slammed on vwvortex.com, he began to post his own comments, describing the company’s future products and offering other insights to appease disgruntled fans.

Mountain View, California-based Intuit Inc., maker of the popular QuickBooks and TurboTax products, has gone further. “One Friday last year, a forward-minded employee in marketing said there was a lot of blogging going on about QuickBooks,” says Paul Rosenfeld, general manager of the Web-hosted QuickBooks Online Edition, “and suggested we start our own blog.” It was up and running the following Monday, and today 10 employees from that business unit, everyone from product designers to engineers to Rosenfeld himself, blog on a regular basis (see QBOE.com). The blogs are personal and extend the idea of community in interesting ways: following Hurricane Katrina, for example, it included links to organizations offering various forms of assistance. “We’ve put a lot of trust in our employees to be unafraid to say what they feel publicly,” says Rosenfeld. “I’ve never once heard someone being told, ‘You can’t blog this.’”

Why do it? “It creates trust in our community,” explains Rosenfeld. “In a very scalable way, we can have personal conversations between one employee and tens of thousands of customers. There is something authentic about the experience.”

Other Intuit divisions and product groups are now creating blogs, and while quantifying the merit of blogging is difficult, Rosenfeld notes that it costs virtually nothing other than the blogger’s time. More important, Intuit’s product designers and engineers often receive important suggestions from consumers regarding product improvement. “If you give consumers what they want, rather than what you think they want,” says Rosenfeld, “they remain steadfast and loyal.” — R.B.


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