Houston’s GripeO Markets Online Customer Service Platform

5/6/14Follow @angelashah

Social media is chockablock with complaints from consumers less than satisfied with products and services. But one Houston startup says it has a platform that makes it more likely those #badservice hashtags will get the attention of the purported offenders.

Launched in early March, GripeO is a website and a mobile app designed to standardize the complaint process, making it easier and more effective for consumers to engage businesses about their product or service issues, says Mike Klanac, the startup’s CEO and co-founder.

Right now, people can voice concerns or frustrations on sites like Yelp, Twitter, and Facebook. But complaints on those sites may not achieve a critical mass that’s enough to prompt businesses to respond, Klanac says. Unhappy consumers can also contact companies directly, of course. But Klanac argues that customer service websites and phone messaging systems are difficult to navigate—and, even if people can leave messages, they don’t know if their complaints will ever be seen by someone who could help.

GripeO is designed to solve these problems. “We consolidate all of these platforms in one location where you send complaint in the same exact way,” he says. “We find that you get a lot more feedback.”

Klanac says GripeO will contact the offending business if that business is “verified” with the site, that is, they sign up to GripeO and agree to contact the customer within two weeks of receiving a complaint. So far, the site’s 60-plus verified companies include Dish Network, Dell Computer, Reliant Energy, and the Buffalo Niagara International Airport. (If a business is not verified, GripeO users can enter complaints on the site and then simultaneously share them with as many social media sites as they like in one go.)

I asked Klanac what would prompt an unverified business to connect with GripeO, especially one that has, perhaps, a lackluster response rate to customer complaints in the first place?

Klanac says that’s exactly why GripeO is launching in June a “complaints marketplace,” something that might ratchet up companies’ competitive spirit with each other. GripeO will sell the portfolio of accumulated complaints, as well as the customers’ contact information, to competitors seeking to lure those customers away.

Right now, GripeO is free to users. The company plans to make money by selling complaints for 25 cents each to interested buyers, i.e., a business’s competitors. They also will sell three service packages ranging from $5 to $250 a month. The basic package gives businesses a report that will include an overview of types of complaints a business might be receiving. In the most expensive package, GripeO will also provide services such as automated responses, multiple user accounts, and native submission forms where customers complain through a portal on a business’s site but GripeO manages the form and receives the complaints.

Essentially, Klanac says businesses will be able to outsource their customer service platform to GripeO. The startup, which is jointly based in Houston and Buffalo, NY, is composed of Klanac and five other co-founders. GripeO has raised $350,000 of a $530,000 seed round it hopes to close this month.

So far, GripeO has attracted about 1,000 users since it debuted in March. Klanac says he realizes that most people right now are used to turning to social media sites first. He hopes to use part of the new funding to boost marketing efforts. “We want them to think, ‘when you’re frustrated, go to GripeO,’ ” he says.

Klanac had previously helped to found startups such as Profilefly, a social networking aggregator, and Simple Apply, which makes enrollment software, with former co-workers in New York. He moved to Houston five years ago, just as social media was taking off.

It was that year when one of the most high-profile complaints via social media was posted, the “United Breaks Guitars” song on Youtube by Dave Carroll, a Canadian musician. The airline, he said, damaged his guitar but denied responsibility. The catchy country tune, which, as of today, has racked up nearly 14 million views, got the airline’s attention and United offered Carroll compensation.

But even Carroll realized that not all social media-enabled complaints would have a similar outcome. So, in 2012, he co-founded Gripevine, which also offers a web-based platform for managing customer complaints.

Klanac says the popularity of social media sites has, in some ways, made them into “echo chambers for negative feedback,” making it difficult for businesses to know how to respond. Also, people may simply not know how to properly compose the complaints in order for them to reach the businesses. For example, if a person does not use a company’s official Twitter name, the complaint won’t be seen, Klanac says.

Klanac became interested in a better customer service platform a couple of Christmases ago, when he and his wife received a set of expensive steak knives. “I was cutting pizza when the knife snaps in half horizontally,” he says. “I thought what kind of engineering or steel is this?”

His wife encouraged him to follow up with a complaint, starting a months-long odyssey of voice mail mazes and unreturned e-mails. “It was a terrible experience,” he says. “I thought there had to be a better way.”

Angela Shah is the editor of Xconomy Texas. She can be reached at ashah@xconomy.com or (214) 793-5763. Follow @angelashah

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