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A lot of internet users land up at www.akosha.com because they mis-spell www.ashoka.com, the URL they usually type when they are looking for the website of the vast social entrepreneurship non-profit Ashoka Foundation. While Akosha doesn’t perform quite as socially valuable a function as the organisation with a name that closely resembles its own, it does something most urbanites would instantly identify with: engaging with brands to get consumer complaints addressed and redressed. It does this for a fee and looks at the service it provides as a much-needed one in these days of short attention spans and even shorter tempers.
Founded in June 2010 and based out of a small home office in Delhi, Akosha has been steadily building up a following on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. And with good reason. While consumer complaint websites are aplenty, they act mainly as message boards where consumers leave angry messages against a brand or product, usually to alert other users to bad practices. Akosha is the only one with a face (and a telephone number). When you send them a complaint, they first evaluate it to see if it is one that is authentic. Then they ‘escalate’ the matter by getting in touch with senior officials of the company. They may even launch a social media campaign on your behalf to try and get company officials to respond. If the complaint still goes unresolved, they help the aggrieved consumer take it to a consumer forum. Most of this is done for a fee: the ‘basic’ package costs Rs 299 and this will get you a review of your campaign. For the other, more demanding services, there are packages worth Rs 499 and Rs 999.
Ankur Warikoo, a Delhi-based entrepreneur, feels this is a small price to pay to avoid the hassle of dealing with customer care agents. He had taken an auto loan from a bank for which he had to pay a processing fee of Rs 3,200. But, instead, the bank deducted Rs 6,200 from his account. “The bank representatives could not explain the charges. We got into an email argument that just went on and on for almost two months without any redressal,” says Warikoo. “Akosha helped me draft a response to the bank. I don’t know how it worked, but in a few days I got my money back.”
Akosha, billed as one of the ‘coolest’ start-ups, was founded by Ankur Singla, a Bangalorean who was working as a corporate lawyer in England. “In 2010, I went through a bad customer care experience with a leading telecom company. I realised that a small complaint tends to take over customers’ lives and causes a lot of stress and lost productivity. This strengthened my resolve to do something to take stress out of such interactions,” says Singla, who invested less than Rs 5 lakh to set up Akosha.
The first consumer complaint the website handled was regarding a coaching institute that was denying a valid demand for a refund of tuition fees. Akosha started with just one to two queries per day. The number has now swelled to over 20. “We think it will go up to 75 a day within two months,” says Singla.
Akosha assures customers that they will save on time, effort and retain peace of mind. “Instead of long hold times, hearing ‘this call is important to us’ innumerable times and following up with different persons in the company, on Aksoha the customer just has to fill a form and we keep her updated on her complaint,” he says.
He adds that complaints on customer care numbers usually “go into a loop” because customers deal with junior officials who are not empowered to take decisions. “The higher management cares about customer satisfaction. So we always reach out to someone senior and try to build a relationship,” says Singla, adding that companies also benefit by getting real-time access to pre-vetted complaints, keeping negative feedback private and increasing consumer satisfaction by promptly responding to complaints.
Social media is key to gaining traction for the business, says Singla. Twitter, especially, has been helpful in spreading the word — not least because it has emerged as a strong forum for consumers to air grievances and for companies to respond in record turn-around times. “Brands used to think they are unassailable. But social media has made them vulnerable,” says brand consultant Harish Bijoor. “On Twitter, in 140 characters, users can unleash the most damaging, disparaging criticism about a brand. Nuances are often lost due to the word limit and this spells disaster for brands.” He adds that if a brand corrects an error and gives feedback, it can give its image a huge boost and “earn unprecedented consumer goodwill.”
Akosha is also building a mobile app. “If you are dining at a restaurant or boarding a flight and have a really bad experience, you can punch in the complaint on your Blackberry so we can start helping you resolve it immediately,” says Singla.
SOCIAL MEDIA TO THE RESCUE
The internet is rebalancing the relationship between customers and companies. Social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter are giving consumers instant and, occasionally, powerful ways to strike back against poor customer service.
Some Indian companies have also recognised the need to use the internet to counteract bad publicity and interact positively with consumers . They have set up teams to handle complaints and feedback on blogs, chat rooms and social networks . The Bangalore-based Flipkart .com is one of those. It has linked its customer care to Twitter and started addressing customers’ queries directly. So how does this help their business? Sachin Bansal, CEO of Flipkart.com, says: “We joined Twitter towards the end of 2009 to interact with customers and learn more about their preferences. We soon realized that Twitter is a powerful medium to get direct customer feedback and in turn enhance the shopping experience.”
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