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Reaching Out an e-helping hand!

By Nita Jatar Kulkarni

They say everyone has a story to tell. They say the customer is queen. They're right--and wrong. More often than not, the queen has a horror story tucked under her sleeve.

Sunil Mirani has one too. The 33-year-old Director of Olive Cyber Tech, the company behind a new customer-feedback Website,, remembers the time he was flying first class on a private airline. Mirani, who can hardly be faulted for disliking waiting at airports, was infuriated when his checked-in suitcase was the last to arrive on the luggage handler. He complained. Although satisfied with the response, Mirani points out that it took the airline 2 months to reply to him.

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No wonder Mirani's value-proposition is to use the Net as a communication bridge between companies and customers. His point: even 10 years after liberalisation, the rights and redressal of customers are, by and large, overlooked. "This is an ideal business opportunity to leverage the power of the Net," says Mirani.

A few Details

The idea struck Mirani in September, 1999. He quickly got together 3 mates (including one cousin) from college days in the US--Atul Shah, 33, Madhav Mirani, 27, and Atul Ruia, 28. Together, they thrashed out the idea of a fusion site, one that would function under both the Business-to-Business (B2B) and Business-to-Customer (B2C) models. "It is a market-research oriented, value-added service for the consumer and the company," says Sanjay Hinduja, Olive Cyber Tech's Director for Online Solutions.

Up and running on February 1, 2000, the site is hosted on the US-based, using the Linux operating system and the MySQL database software. Mirani says that the site isn't just a complaint forum. So, it stresses on feedback. The difference? A lot.

Of course, the free site offers a basic grievance forum for consumers. It's convenient because consumers are not restricted by a company's work timings. It saves time as hunting for the company's Website--or a feedback form once the site is found--is no longer required. And it's supposed to be a quicker form of redressal (well, not all the time). For easy reference, Planetcustomer lists companies by name as well as product, service, and brands. So far, 1,300 brands across 40 categories, and 300 companies have been listed on the site.

All registered users need to do is type and send feedback on the form provided. Planetcustomer forwards it to the relevant company. When the company replies--of course, this time-period varies--the user is notified by e-mail. In the 2 months since the site was launched, 35-40 consumers--out of the 400 who have registered--have posted feedback and complaint forms. According to Planetcustomer, 50 per cent of the complaints have been sorted out. Says Mirani: "Companies which have not responded are mostly the unregistered ones."

Of course, a consumer can suggest listings. "Even small brands should be listed," says Rambha Mankame, 40, a consuming copywriter. "Customers find it difficult to contact unheard of companies." Consumers can also participate in discussion fora on different products and services, an opportunity to share information.

A few Questions

Are response-times on the Net really quicker than real world complaint systems, be they driven by call centres or good ol' snail mail? Not really. Most Indian corporate Websites have a `Contact Us' e-mail address. But not all bother to reply to queries. On the positive side, many companies are realising that setting up a feedback component to their site translates into monitoring it constantly.

Says J. Rajagopal, 45, Managing Director (Consulting) KPMG: " is an excellent idea. However, it depends on how well it is executed in terms of maintaining confidentiality and offering companies valid information from consumers." Well, in the first 15 days, 15 companies registered with the vortal--from Johnson & Johnson Vision Products and Voltas to Cadbury India and Dabur India. According to Mirani, 6 more companies have agreed, verbally, to sign up. Planetcustomer charges them a hefty annual fee of between Rs 50,000 and Rs 75,000.

The advantage for consumers: the registration process includes a commitment to a maximum response time, which varies between 3-7 days. "Seven days is the maximum," says Mirani, "and even this is a long period in Net time." Each company gets a personalised mailbox on the site, archiving each feedback and its status.

What would prompt companies to choose Planetcustomer, particularly as they already have (or should have) a full-fledged consumer affairs division? "For products such as ours, direct consumer feedback is of the essence," points out Rahul Patani, 39, General Manager, Johnson & Johnson Vision Products. Seconds N.D. Khurody, 63, Managing Director, Voltas: "The Net is all about interacting directly with customers. Why miss an opportunity to do so?"

FMCG companies, in particular, sense that they can supplement their consumer interaction activities. Particularly as it's fairly obvious by now that surfers gravitate towards functional sites, across companies, sectors, and services. "We are not stamping on the company's toes," insists Madhav Mirani, another director in the company, "and the link provided to the company's site is proof of that." Adds Sunil Mirani: "Our advantage is that we are unbiased third parties."

Getting the companies on their side is important since Planetcustomer's gameplan is to become an extended marketing arm of the registered companies. "The services we provide cover a range of buyer-seller relationships from pre-sale, facilitating the sale and post-sale," says Atul Shah, Director, Planetcustomer. Registered companies can participate in surveys, which are optional for the consumer. There's also the special-offers channel whereby companies can directly mail to the customer. Research has shown that the chances of her reading an ad delivered via e-mail are far higher than banner ads. "The click-through rates of banner ads around the world are low," points out Mirani.

Will this model work? Warns V. Doraiswami, 25, the CEO of the Web development firm, Wormhole Tech: "I think the companies themselves should be in this business and, if you notice, that is how it is in the US." Moreover, Planetcustomer has to win its client companies' trust. And get consumers to log on, of course. With an investment of Rs 1 crore thus far, it plans to sink in Rs 5-6 crore within the year. Well, with VCs entering the fray, this innovative site will soon have to answer to its own customers.


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