One thing is certain. When you establish an online presence, your competition will be watching--and perhaps contributing to--customer complaints. Without question, most of its competitors were watching when Polaris, in Escondido, Calif., released a buggy version of PackRat, its personal information manager software. Competitors were monitoring the company's online forum on CompuServe before, during, and after its troubled period. CEO Jack Leach suspects that at least one of his competitors publicly attacked Polaris online.

One of the most distressing aspects of the ordeal was the presence in the Polaris online forum of numerous conversations that not only derided PackRat, but even extolled the virtues of competing products. If employees of a rival company promote its product in your online forum, that's considered "poaching." If ordinary citizens promote a competing product, it isn't poaching. But, Leach points out, given the ease of assuming identities online, poachers can pretend to be innocent observers and do equivalent damage.

And, of course, the press will be watching. The press is probably what did Polaris the most harm, according to David Coursey, a software-industry observer. "The real damage was done by the people who never saw the messages themselves but became convinced that Polaris was in trouble." Customers faulted Leach for not confronting the online situation much sooner than he did. "Leach took his sweet time responding," says one angry former customer. "I'll never buy a Polaris product again." Being online didn't cause Polaris's problems, but it did quickly exacerbate them.