Mar 11, 2009

Crowd-Sourced Customer Service


Companies are attempting to interact with customers through social media in many ways. Some of the most meaningful interactions I’ve seen are where companies attempt to solve a customer’s problem.

One very rainy day last week I found myself and my soggy umbrella at the doorstep of Get Satisfaction in San Francisco’s South Park. Get Satisfaction (which I will now fondly refer to as GS to eliminate some typing) is a service where customers can complain about products or services and companies can engage with angry customers to help solve their problems.

OK, the platform does much more than that. Customers can also share ideas, questions, and praise, and they can interact with each other in various ways. And companies can pull relevant conversations onto their sites through an API.

I talked with Amy Muller, co-founder and chief community officer, and Scott Hirsch, who heads up business development at GS, to understand the platform and how it fits into a bigger picture of social media. (In the interest of full disclosure, a few of us at Hot have a couple friends who work at GS but other than that, we have no affiliation with the company.)

Here’s a hypothetical scenario.

My iPhone and I are having a bad day. Instead of throwing it against the wall and watching it smash into a million bits (as I have fantasized many times), I decide to vent my frustration in a more constructive way. I go to and type, “My new iPhone is gorgeous but it won’t hold a call!!!”

Now a few different things can happen. A fellow iPhone victim may chime in and say, “I know. I have the same problem. I feel like an idiot for switching phone services.” So my problem isn’t solved, but at least I feel like someone is listening to me. Or a fellow customer may chime in with more helpful information like, “Yeah, I had the same problem. Turned out my phone had a faulty motherboard so I took it back and my new iPhone works great.” Or even better, an employee from Apple may be monitoring this conversation, and she can jump in and help me troubleshoot the problem.

As my Aunt Linda would say, now we’re cooking with gas. The company wants to help me! And I didn’t have to wait with all those hipsters at the Genius Bar. This is a great brand experience. And it’s a great opportunity for the company to win a loyal customer. (Apple, are you listening?)

You don’t really have control

So why wouldn’t all companies engage with customers this way? Many companies have a fear of giving up control, so if they do anything online that is customer service-related, they want to host the conversation on their own site. But as Scott described, often these systems are badly designed and managed, and people like you and me refuse to use them. They’d rather complain to their friends or to other disgruntled customers. So by using a service like GS, at least companies have the opportunity to take part in the conversation. And as Scott and Amy pointed out, that means they have the opportunity to change the tone of the conversation.

How do you staff for this?

Amy says she usually recommends companies designate a couple people as community managers who can do “triage.” In addition, anyone in a company can get involved, like marketing folks or product managers; they can interact with users as employees of the company. Customers also help each other out. And Amy says, people who integrate GS into their site may see a reduction in customer support inquiries. “One community manager and the right tool equals ten traditional customer support agents,” Scott says. And of course, it has to be the right community manager. It can’t just be anyone. How the community manager attempts to interact with customers is ultimately what makes the difference between a good outcome and a bad one.

Your options

If you’re trying to figure out this social media thing for your company, what other options do you have? According to Scott, your options look something like this:

“Listen”—The simplest way to use social media is to find out what people are saying online. This is a great way to get feedback but there’s no dialog between company and customer.
Tools include: BuzzMetrics, Google Alerts, Scout Labs, Radian6

“Listen and respond”—A more dynamic option is that community managers monitor what’s being said on Twitter and elsewhere and respond. This means you’re going where users are and connecting directly with them in a somewhat public way. Platforms include Twitter, Facebook, and a million gazillion other places users are interacting online.

“Walled garden”—Many companies decide to put community forums on their sites where they can set the rules and control what gets published. The problem is this tends to create a very forced interaction, and the user experience of many of these systems is sub-par.
Tools include: vBulletin, HiveLive, Lithium

“Outpost”—In this example, the company creates a presence on social media platforms (like Twitter and Facebook) that have a lot of users. The main problem with this approach is that in many cases there is a lack of purpose. Can you provide users with a compelling reason to interact with your company’s Facebook page?

“Customer Support, Inside and Out”—This is where GS is positioning itself. Companies actively monitor and interact with users on a third party platform. Scott says the big benefit here is the balance of authenticity and control, and the focus on outcomes. Many times an angry customer is one good interaction away from being your most loyal customer. The trick is to catch them before they smash your product into a million pieces.

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Amber Naslund's picture

Hi Katrina,

Fantastic post! What's great about your point is the "being heard" element. Many customers can accept and forgive the lack of an immediate resolution. What they can't forgive as easily is being ignored.

And the human element is so critical. Community managers, customer support, or whatever title you prefer, that human outreach is really important in making your customers feel connected to your company.

Thanks much for the Radian6 mention, and for continuing a super important dialogue.

Amber Naslund
Director of Community | Radian6
@AmberCadabra on Twitter

Jennifer Zeszut's picture

Hi Katrina,
Customer support is definitely in the throes of a revolution. Thanks for addressing! We love Get Sat because as you point out, they take over where we at Scout Labs (and other analysis platforms) leave off. Expect to see closer integrations along those lines soon :-). I have also noticed an evolution in the way companies attack social media. They start with finding and fighting fires (a PR type function) but then evolve to a more solution-oriented and relationship-oriented approach. A post here with respect to that evolution in social media consciousness:

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