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When the Internet plays agony aunt

February 08, 2008 12:56 IST
I recently accompanied a friend to a well-known audio systems dealership in south Mumbai. My friend was having a problem with a slightly high-end Swedish CD player and wanted to get the dealer's opinion on what to do next.

The dealer promised a replacement if required. But then, he said, could my friend put the problem down on mail. "Sure," said my friend, thinking a painful bureaucratic process was underway.

But the young chap went on to explain. "The reason is, we will send the mail to the manufacturer for their understanding and response." There was more. "The contents of your mail will be posted on external and internal hi-fi audio forums to see whether anyone else has experienced similar problems with such players. We will post you back on the results," he said.

This was interesting. Not only was the manufacturer or his representative replacing the product, but he was implicitly (or explicitly) acknowledging that the knowledge on the problem might lie in the larger group of users rather than within the manufacturer itself. Moreover, he was openly admitting that the solution to the problem might as well come from outside the organisation than within.

This is not something new that happened, but the ability of the Internet to unite knowledge and experiences across the world is gaining critical mass, I feel. In recent months, I have 'visited' dozens of forums on a host of subjects ranging from laptops and cars to specialist hobbies and cool gadgets. Often, before I even think of buying a product, I visit the forums to see what people are saying. Even for watches.

In each forum, I have noticed, amateurs and professionals pour in their experiences, knowledge, solutions and advice on issues ranging from the simple to the critical. In the developed world, as I found, the first option to addressing any problem is a visit to a forum with messages like, "Hey guys, I want to fit a Chevvy tyre onto a Ford Focus, has anyone tried this?"

By evening, the forum typically lights up with a bevy of responses. Some would answer the question directly, others would suggest alternatives or, in some cases, counsel strongly against such a step. So, obviously, someone is saving a call or a trip to an expert or professional who would most likely have charged to part with this knowledge. Or would be difficult to find in the first place.

I also find that most websites, beginning of course with big brother Amazon, are increasingly highlighting user experiences and propagating knowledge-sharing on the path to buying products. There are other interesting aspects about buying on Amazon but that is not directly related to the point here.

But its not just retailers (online and physical) who host forums. Most manufacturers do as well, particularly for brands which have an iconic appeal. Manufacturers willingly engage with users, existing and potential, to see what users want or understand problems they have faced in order to better serve them. Sure, there is some idealism here and one is not suggesting every manufacturer gets it right, but many do.

This also means that the process of product purchase and engagement is a lot different elsewhere in the world. We are not seeing much of that happen in India though. Can I fit an LPG kit on a Toyota Corolla ? The manufacturer will say no if I ask him but what do others feel ? Have they tried it ? What are the chances of something going wrong ? Or, I experience five power outrages a day where I live. Will it affect my new LG 42" plasma TV?

Sure, there are forums, but I don't think they've gained the mass to reach out or address issues which are a little more India-specific. Partly, it's because computing itself has not reached as many people. I mean not just access to a computer but the desire and ability to engage with one another. This takes time. The push must come from both product makers or retailers, even as other interest groups catch on.

The other day, I walked into a south Mumbai music store I have frequented for many years now. I have always found the salesmen there extremely knowledgeable on some genres of music, lets say Blues or Jazz. Earlier, I would depend on them entirely as I went about my hunt. Now, I check Amazon's individual listings for suggestions on Delta Blues performers. I say "hello", but I rarely ask them with the same intensity I did earlier. I feel sad for them, in a way. But then the store-chain is getting sold. Like the information, the music, I reckon, will go digital too.

Govindraj Ethiraj
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