Hellopeter.com: Is Peter Cheales The Modern-Day Gwen Gill?


Peter Cheales is a maverick – one of those people who goes for exactly what he wants, doesn’t take orders from anyone and lives life on his terms.

Some people think he is the best thing that ever happened to consumers – and a few despise him.

He is the man behind Hellopeter.com, the largest customer service website in the world. His brand gave South Africans an opportunity to demand better service, and introduced social media to them long before that was a term. His website has even entered the South African lexicon – people threaten to: “I’ll ‘Hellopeter’ you!”

Cheales is charming, fun and full of energy but, from the moment we met, I got the sense that it is preferable to have him on your side rather than as an enemy. He appears to be someone who doesn’t back down in an argument and, as he says, he has learnt to be ruthless in business.

On a plane en route to Cape Town, Cheales came up with the concept for Hellopeter, a website where people could write about their consumer experiences – good or bad – and suppliers could respond.

“I had to find a way of creating the ‘push and pull’ to get the friction between buyers and sellers.” He got word out to consumers through a mass ad campaign and then sold it to companies as a brilliant way of working out their service level, how they were perceived and where they might be going wrong.

“If they were going wrong, they could fix it. I was offering this at 0.002% of the marketing research fees. I expected the little companies to grab onto this idea, but it was the big ones that responded.”

Initially, Cheales’ financial model was wrong and he was losing a fortune. He called in the experts and changed it, and now makes money from both subscriptions and advertising.

The website has 8 000 hits a minute and it is the 96th most popular website in South Africa and 16 700th in the world. It usually gets around 700 000 new visitors a month. There are an average of 5 000 new reports a day, of which about 20% are compliments. According to Cheales, there are 2 048 local companies that do respond (as they are subscribers and willing to do so) and 1 307 that don’t get involved.

“I don’t believe the customer is always right or king, but I do believe in the sanctity of wealth and I learnt the hard way to make money. I have sacrificed to spend money and I have been the guy who bought the cheapest car in the lot, which became my Ferrari, and if the dealer rips that guy off because it is the cheapest car, I am furious.”

He says what he is doing is enabling South African consumers to get what they deserve. “I am simply the modern-day Gwen Gill,” referring to the renowned Sunday Times columnist who had a hugely popular consumer column.

In the next five years, he hopes his website will become more international and, he says, “hopefully someone will buy it.” He is already looking at other projects – one that hits home to every parent. “Parents are always afraid of making too many demands for their kids at school in case, somehow, this is taken out on their kids. But if there is a Hellopeter that enables you to find out which are the best schools – can you imagine how parents would love that? Hmmm!”

I don’t think we have heard the last of Cheales’ innovations.