What does a customer do when he is let down after purchasing a product? He usually complains to the company briefly before eventually giving up. But there is hope on the horizon, as Akosha, a three-year-old firm, has made it its business to escalate the complaint to higher-ups to try and obtain an appropriate response.
The start-up company says it is successful in around 55 per cent of the cases it takes up, which means about half of those consumers whose complaints earlier went unresolved at least have a chance of a solution through Akosha.
On an average, Akosha gets around 1,400 complaints daily; most involve telecom companies. A typical complaint would be when a consumer alleges he was overcharged for internet services. As it happens, such a complaint prompted the birth of Akosha.
Around three years ago, its founder & chief executive officer, Ankur Singla, had a difficult time dealing with India's leading telecom service provider over an inflated mobile phone bill he received for internet services. At that time, Singla, a law graduate, was running a small business documenting legal papers from his Chandigarh office. He had just returned to India after quitting a highly-paid legal job in London.
Singla looked around for help and all he found was people with similar experiences who had nowhere to go. Singla, then 27, quickly sensed a business opportunity and launched Akosha in January 2011.
Akosha's basic services are free, but it charges between Rs 299 and Rs 1,499 from customers who wish to further escalate their complaints and seek legal assistance. The customer is charged according to the nature of his or her complaint and the size of the disputed amount.
"Most customers approach us after having tried their hand with the company's customer care executives," says Singla. "We take up these complaints directly with the marketing departments and higher-ups in the brands."
For paid customers, if the issue is still unresolved, Akosha goes one step further. Its employees launch a social media campaign against the target company. Akosha's Twitter handle tweets complainant' sproblems on the social media, an area where leading brands and service providers try their best to avoid negative publicity.
Often, brands' social media teams are different from their marketing and the customer care departments. One department exhorts the other to settle the complaint. For companies, retaining customers is as important as avoiding negative word of mouth.
This is where Singla and his small firm are able to pressure companies to address the problem. Akosha's Twitter handle has around 3,000 followers.
"When we launch a social media campaign, we do it on behalf of the customer. We don't proclaim that a company or a brand is a fraud. We impartially narrate the complaint on the brands' social media page. Akosha does not do anything that may hurt the interests of the company," Singla says, explaining how they avoid defamation suit.
But before accepting a complaint, Singla says his team first authenticates the complaint through internal checks.
"We have more than 13 checks to ensure genuineness of complaints. If the customer's complaint does not have the requisite details or the customer has unrealistic expectations, we speak with him or her and explain the procedure," he says.
If the grievance is unresolved, Akosha's team drafts legal papers for the complainant to take the matter to consumer courts. The paid customers are regularly updated about every development or interaction Akosha has with manufacturers or service providers.
Akshay Chudasama, partner at law firm J Sagar Associate, says as long as Akosha is not practicing law as a company, its business is legitimate. "If their work is of an advisory nature, I don't see a problem," he says.
According to its website, Akosha has received over a little 400,000 complaints in the past three years. When the company started in 2011, it received 10 complaints a day. In 2012, the number grew to 100 and in 2013 it further went up to 250.
Singla says their success rate is under 60 per cent. Many people drop out because they are not satisfied with the response they get from brands through them.
Over the years, Akosha has entered into a formal contract with some brands and it has opened an informal channel of communication with others in seven categories - FMCG, financial products, consumer appliances, telecom, online & ecommerce, travel & leisure and miscellaneous (mostly education and pharma).
The company, which has prominently displayed the names of a few brands like Airtel, Samsung, Voltas and Micromax on its website, claims 350 brands take it seriously.
Airtel says it doesn't have any tie-up with Akosha and addresses customers' complaints irrespective of the platform; Samsung did not reply to a query sent by Business Standard.
Ankit Goyal, executive assistant to the Micromax chief executive officer, confirms that his firm has recently signed an agreement with Akosha. "This is on a case-to-case basis. We want to understand gaps in our processes by reaching out to customers who are not satisfied," Goyal says. "For us, it is like a third-party audit and also to avoid customers approaching random forums with their complaints."
Dhiraj Chadha, marketing head at Voltas, also confirms a tie-up. Voltas has entered into an online reputation management agreement with Akosha. Under this, the latter manages social media platforms, a forum where consumers vent anger against the brand.
"Akosha compiles all such complaints for us. We respond to every complaint on a priority basis and give acknowledgement to customers. A process is maintained. Akosha completes a missing link between us and consumers in the virtual world," he said. Business Standard could not independently verify Akosha's claim of working with other brands. Though Akosha is scaling up its operations, many in the market have not heard of them.
"Every company has a modus operandi. But our experience says brands do listen to consumers and they do care for them. Social media campaigns against a brand, in my view, is an extreme step," says Saif Hasan, director (communications) at Mouthshut.com" a popular website that publishes reviews of consumer durables.Experts say all major brands anyway collect data from such platforms and attempt to reach out to customers. Akosha doesn't deal with government departments because of the cumbersome process involved.The company says it has registered a growth in terms of revenues and staff since its inception. Three years ago, it had six people working for it. Now, its staff strength is over 100. The brands also pay Akosha for sharing benchmark data comparing their performance with competitors on customer satisfaction.
Singla refused to share revenue figures and funding his start-up had received, but said he often got offers of investment.
"There are some angel investors. We have also taken Rs 5 lakh from Morpheus (start-up accelerator)," Singla explains in the conference room of his second-floor office in Delhi's Okhla Phase-II.
"We are now focusing on developing a benchmark for consumer index and analytics tools. We will be different from marketing research companies, as we are a platform where consumers arrive of their own accord," he adds.