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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Crowdsourced service: Not whether, but how.

A debate in the regular Tuesday #custserv chat on whether or not customer service activities should be crowdsourced spilled into the customer service blogosphere last week.

One side was enthusiastic about finding a way to enable customers to help other customers, while the other was reluctant to yield control of the experience to customers.

While it was a spirited debate with a lost of great supporting points made on both sides of the issue, I see it as an unimportant question, though it does lead to some very important questions.

Whether or not to involve customers in the provision of customer service is moot. It already happens. Companies may not be aware of it. They may not control it, may not have the resources to take advantage of it and ultimately, they may decide that they do not want to support it. But it exists, nonetheless.

Brainzooming’s Mike Brown recently told me an air travel story where a gate agent could not help a customer with a new gate assignment because they hadn’t received the information. A bystanding customer armed with a smartphone successfully retrieved the correct gate information from the airport website and provided it to the inquiring traveller. While there are several things wrong with a service environment where a customer is more enabled to provide service than an employee, in the end, a need existed and was filled.

With accessing accurate information becoming easier for customers to do themselves, variations on this encounter happen more every day.

In every service encounter – from legal defense to customer service call – the customer has a role to play. The important decisions revolve around what role you want the customer to play, and how you get customers to embrace the role, and how you support that role’s success.

The customer role absolutely can (and does) include serving other customers.

As such, the choices companies have to make are more fundamental to strategy than, “should customer-to-customer service interactions happen?”

Your customers are already making service promises, on your behalf, to other customers. Are those promises accurate and relevant? Could they be made better with your input? What would that look like?

They also help you fulfill those service promises through their own effort. Should that effort be supported? Will it lead to better outcomes for all parties? Will it lead to lower costs?

Increasingly, companies need to examine what role they will play in their customers’ tendencies to provide service to other customers.

While the answer varies from organization-to-organization, my general view is that this type of service is becoming too visible to be ignored or left alone. That companies increasingly look uncooperative or incompetent by disregarding customer-to-customer service, and would be better served by finding ways to channel the energy that already exists within their customer bases, harness it creatively, and use it to provide better service than they could relying only on their own (paid-for) resources.

3 comments:

Robert Bacal said...

The major concern from both companies and customers is that it simply doesn't work for most major companies. I've said this before but I challenge crowdsourcing supporters to go to the Openx support forums, or the google support forums or the yahoo support forums, or in fact most any, and here's how to assess them. (I could put my finger on another 100 failed examples in about 5 minutes, just from my own experience as a customer.

Calculate the number of queries that NEVER receive even a response from anyone. That's not much "support". Then to get an indicator of the quality of the support, look at how many problems are actually solved, how many are just abandoned (person gives up or gets help elsewhere or muddles through).

Support forums that do work tend to be informal ones NOT run by companies. Probably because they are more community oriented.

Shai said...

Absolutely the role of the customer is the highlight of a business and currently the crowd sourcing is a creative services. And its very important to know and examine the problems existing.

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Chris Reaburn said...

Robert,

Terrific comment - thanks for the perspective. I agree with much of what you’re saying here. Browsing the Google support pages yields dozens of examples of questions posed to the group where support simply wasn’t given. That’s a poor execution of crowdsourced support and if most companies are templating that example, it may not have much of a future.

Of course, just because Google isn’t doing it right doesn’t mean it can’t be done, and there are many issues with the Google example that, if changed & presented in a different context, could work for the right organization:

Objective. One of the initially obvious failures of the Google support is in not having defined what questions the crowd should ask / answer vs. those that should be retained for the experts. Many of the unanswered questions are technical by nature, which may not be not what the crowd is supposed to do. Setting those expectations up front would likely yield a reduction in questions incorrectly placed with the crowd.

Audience. You mentioned that the best support forums tend to be run not by companies but by 3rd party communities. This may be a failing of the Google application, in that their customer base is as diverse in terms interests & applications for the Google capabilities as any user community you’d find. A smaller community, or even one with more homogeneous usage goals would be a better application.

Expectations. Google doesn’t make it clear to participants as to what the service expectation is, nor do they make it clear to non-participants that by using Google services, they are a part of the community, and expected to contribute back to the experience of all. That in itself isn’t enough to move the crowd, but the move won’t happen without it.

Tools. As with any user support, the tools to effectively position a response with a inquiry is critical. There are really no tools in this case that would enable to user to find another user with a similar problem or gain access to the ability to solve it. Google certainly has the ability to identify power users of its applications. Routing questions from other users to power users of the applications with the expectations that these customers develop and display some subject expertise in their areas doesn’t seem like too much to execute or ask.

Incentives. One aspect that is often missing in the crowdsourced customer service concept is alignment of customer benefit with desired customer activity. It perplexes me that this is so often missed, because when executed well, it results in the right behaviors. Southwest airlines are absolute masters at getting a customer to expend their own labor in support of the Southwest service operation, and the payoff is always the same - a plane that lands on time and a fair (low) price. The opensource software model didn’t rely on altruism, so much as the idea that everyone involved benefits from an improved end product. Crowdsourced service should have some element of incentive introduced. In the Google example, this could be an actual monetary reward based on lowered costs for applications / services that power users engage. It could also be based on improved access to placement / site revenue. It could be as simple as advance access to Google products as lead users in development stages. There are a number of possibilities for any business to confer benefit on those customers that expand their role to help others, but the role has to be rewarded in order to have participants.

Thanks for the examples and the perspectives. We may not have seen a good / practicable example yet, but I’m not sure it’s not because of how businesses are approaching it. It likely isn’t for every business, but businesses should increasingly consider whether customer labor has a role to play in providing service to it’s other customers, and put more thought into how that might actually execute than they have.

My best,
Chris.