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Gripevine, a new way to kvetch about customer service

Gripevine is gaining traction fast--and you can guess which companies are getting the most gripes.

Gripevine aims to get you help when 800 numbers and Twitter fail

Attention all those who like to gripe about lousy customer service and companies (I'm looking at you AT&T and airlines everywhere) that tend to provide it: there's a new place for people to get their complaints heard, and it means business.

The site is called Gripevine, and it's more than a platform like Facebook and Twitter on which frustrated customers can broadcast their complaints and hope for a response. Gripevine is signing up companies (for a fee) and has built a dashboard that automatically informs the targeted business of the complaint, offering them a chance to solve it.

Space is no issue for the griper. There's no 140-character limit here. You can be as detailed as you wish. You can upload photos. And you can automatically share your gripe to Facebook and Twitter for maximum corporate embarrassment.

Companies can ignore Gripevine at their own peril, and some probably will.

Gripevine, which is based in Toronto, launched a month ago. So far, more than 3,000 individuals have signed up, and Gripevine has funneled about 600 gripes through its dashboard. Its founders say that they're on the verge of signing up some big corporate members.

Those aren't huge numbers, but beware: this is a company that counts as a co-founder one of the shrewdest and best-known gripers of all times.

If you don't remember the name David Carroll, you might remember his gripe. Carroll, a singer-songwriter from Halifax, Nova Scotia, achieved Internet fame and beyond in 2009, shortly after United Airlines busted his guitar while he was on tour with his band, Sons of Maxwell.

You can read the full tale here, but here are the key points. United baggage handlers in Chicago threw the band's instruments. No one at the airline cared or tried to help, even as Carroll and others saw this happening out the plane window. The guitar tossing broke Carroll's $3,500 Taylor acoustic. He went through customer service hell for months. He wrote a song, called "United Breaks Guitars," and slapped it on YouTube. (It's now approaching 12 million views).

Then the fun began. Tons of media coverage. TV interviews, including an appearance with Whoopie Goldberg on The View. And Carroll became a sort of ombudsman for pissed off musicians everywhere, since the impact of the video eventually got him a direct contact high up at United.

"In the first few weeks, I had 10,000 emails coming in," says Carroll. "Some said, 'Can you help me'? But I couldn't write a song for everybody."

While Carroll was becoming famous--he's now an in-demand speaker about social media and customer service--a former venture capitalist named Richard Hue was beginning to work on a system for connecting gripers and companies. Hue heard about Carroll and reached out. They decided to team up and, along with a technical co-founder, the startup was born.

"I like to describe Gripevine as Yelp on steroids," says Hue. "Where Yelp allows businesses to claim their page and let's people write on it, we go one step further. We handle the customer service issue by putting them in touch with each other."

The gripes so far are varied, but the leading targets are--you guessed it--cell phone carriers and airlines. Naturally, those companies are among the first that the Gripevine team is trying to sign up. Hue says that some airlines can get 7,000 complaints in a day through social media alone--gripes that he says will be better handled coming through Gripevine.

"We're trying to give companies a fighting chance in managing the complaints they have," said Hue, explaining that the dashboard lets companies prioritize their complaints.

The idea sounds smart, especially at time when even the dullest of companies are finally realizing how fast consumers--using online petitions and social media--can damage a brand.

For his part, Carroll sounds genuine about the effort.

"I've always had a passion for helping other people," he says.

And, hey, Carroll still has his musical career, which has taken off ever since he released United Breaks Guitars.