The Sharp, shiny edge of an executioner’s axe has today been replaced by a one-star rating or an angry-faced emoji. On the Internet, justice is dealt with swiftly and almost with as much potency as a Court Order. Equally menacing it can, if used effectively, be lethal to a company’s reputation.
Officially launched today, The Gentle Reminders Club (Gentle Reminders). Gentle Reminders is an online platform that seeks to encourage ethical business behaviour when it comes to settling invoices on time, contributing to building a brand’s reputation capital. While the site has a public registry that names bad and slow payers and those that need formal intervention, it also (more importantly) reflects those that are prompt and a pleasure to work with. The rating system uses emoji to denote whether a customer is happy, sad, or just plain mad and the aim is to generate as many smiley faces and thumbs up as it can – a highly effective visual tool, in always on world.
Gentle Reminders is the brainchild of a group of South African entrepreneurs, and small businesses fed-up with delivering their services and dealing with clients who abscond from payment – for whatever made-up reason they choose to use. The Beta platform was launched in September and has already racked up an impressive 942 companies that have subscribed to the free site. While 80% of those are based in South Africa, 10% are located in the United Kingdom and a further 10% elsewhere on the European continent. Seems that paying on time, is a global problem.
“The court of public opinion is not a new phenomenon, says Scott Cundill, whose company Majestic3 is the tech partner behind the platform, “but, in formally collating a ‘payment rating’ system through a reputational justice platform, we are looking to help people like us avert the sort of situations that can see small businesses fold.
“All we really want on this platform is to have two happy parties. We don’t take sides – this is not a black-listing platform as there is always an opportunity for the offending party to make good, we believe in communication not litigation.”
How it works
CJ has just completed an urgent design job for her client. The client wanted it yesterday and CJ works all night to deliver. CJ sends an invoice… and hears nothing back. She calls, she emails, but the client ducks and dives. If there really is a credible explanation, the client is slow in communicating it. CJ feels worried and dejected. Like most of us, CJ relies on quick cash flow to sustain her small business.
So, what recourse does CJ now have?
Alas, small businesses like CJ have little or nowhere to turn. The Court system is too expensive and time consuming, not to mention adversarial: it pits both businesses against each other and it’s not pretty. This destroys the relationship and any future chance of business with the same company evaporates along with it.??
Alternative Dispute Resolution is a step in the right direction: find a way to mediate, facilitate and ultimately resolve a dispute without going to Court. Unfortunately for CJ, she can’t afford the time required to prepare her case and the expense to hire the necessary advice.??However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Nothing beats ‘word of mouth.’ CJ turns to a Reputational Justice Platform (aka community justice) such as The Gentle Reminders Club – a virtual sanctuary where disputes are handled internally using a private chat room.
Moderated by a Club who oversees the process and carries a great deal of public clout, platforms like this focus on facilitating communication that leads to a quick resolution. Like a parent urging two children to get into a room and “sort it out,” a Reputational Justice Platform like Gentle Reminders encourages both parties to sit round a virtual table. If one does not have a credible reason for refusing, they are then black-listed on the website.
Without enforcement, no system of justice can get very far and this is where the power of the emoji comes into play. Something as simple as a one-star rating or an angry face emoji could make or break a company’s reputation. This simple insight has become the backbone for a new way of thinking about the way we resolve disputes. When a business or individual’s reputation is on the line, they tend to react and this is precisely the kind of reputational power these platforms wield.??
The Gentle Reminders Club is the perfect example of a Reputational Justice platform, wielding the might of ‘brand reputation’, because it fills a gap that the current legal system cannot.
Gentle Reminders, is free and accessible to everyone. Because it operates as a community service, a banana picker in Africa could use the same platform to get their $5 that an IT provider in London would use to fast track the £50,000 he is owed. Costs are only incurred when human resources are required. The Club charges a small management fee to perform what is called “A Formal Intervention”, which occurs when the recipient simply refuses to co-operate. An Intervention effectively encourages the second party to either come to the table… or face reputational damage. It sounds harsh, which is why in reality most disputes are resolved quickly.
For a small business, time and money are interchangeable. A business owner does not have time to fight a legal battle or take part in alternative dispute resolution. It’s cheaper to simply write off a debt than spend a full day doing paperwork in preparation for a case that will probably never be heard.
Gentle Reminders uses online interfaces with pre-written letters: it’s a simple case of choosing a letter and hitting send. The Club mails the letter which adds a credibility that cannot be attained if a business went at it alone. The Club carries a weight that a single, lone individual does not. Resolution can take seconds, minutes or days instead of months, years or never. Because the letters are pre-written and come from a powerful third party, they are taken far more seriously by the recipient.
The sheriffs, the bailiffs and the police act as the enforcement arm of the Courts. The enforcement arm of a Reputational Justice Platform is reputation. If your reputation is under threat, you are more likely to do the right thing. A surprising amount of information is available to the public including names of directors, shareholders, accounting officers and contact information. Individuals do not want their personal names dragged through the mud which provides a compelling reason to do the right thing. A community doesn’t need a gun or a pitchfork to wield online justice, all they need is an effective rating system.
As always, the sword, or in this case the axe, is double edged. The primary motive of most Reputational Justice Platforms is to foster and build business reputations. The Gentle Reminders Club openly states in its manifesto that “all we wish to see are two happy parties.” Positive ratings allow businesses within the Club to make deals on a handshake, feeling secure that the other party will honour their obligations.?
Once a client goes the legal route, or hands a debt over to a collections company, it destroys any future chance of business. A lawyer will immediately embark on a series of threatening letters, taunting or provoking the opposing party into making a mistake. This attitude tears a business relationship into tatters. In legal proceedings, it’s wise to play your cards close to your chest and this goes completely against the community justice approach which is: talk it over and sort it out. When a parent forces two children into a room, it’s only a matter of time before they are playing happily again, the previous argument all but forgotten.
Revenge will not resolve anything and an individual intent on damaging another’s reputation purely for revenge must be avoided. For this reason, Reputational Justice Platforms always give fair and reasonable opportunity for both parties to talk to each other. Generally, failure to talk means that party is probably hiding something. The key here is communication instead of litigation.
There is a misguided notion that Reputational Justice Platforms require a critical mass of subscribers to be effective. This is partly true: A Club with one Member will have little impact. However, a strong active group standing together can put up a serious fight. A hundred letters to a local politician can change a by-law, a thousand letters to a leather factory can force them to change their stance on climate change. The Gentle Reminders Club aims to rectify the lacklustre attitude that too many businesses have when paying their invoices.?
Reputational Justice Platforms are mostly automated. Think of Airbnb as an example. They resolve disputes between hosts and guests online. The process requires minimal human intervention. Automation takes away all those frustrating and time-consuming letters, all of which are pre-written as templates. Ultimately both parties want to use the site again and keep their reputations intact, so they are willing to resolve their dispute right there and then.
Without ratings, sites like Airbnb would struggle to deal with the mountain of disputes they need to handle.
“Over the coming years, we are going to see Reputational Justice Platforms like Gentle Reminders mature and play a more important role in developing trust and respect in society, protecting those with little or no access to the legal system,” concludes Cundill.
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