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Is the answer to better service found in customers serving customers? I get approached by quite a few individuals and agencies that are interested in guest blogging here. I’d say 99% of them have never read my blog so their pitches aren’t very successful. A little while back, I tweeted out an interesting article on GigaOm by Ashley Verrill, a software analyst at Software Advice, about proposed software to support empowering customers on your business’s behalf. Can’t say that isn’t interesting. If this is news to you, I highly recommend reading the article.

The company Ashely works with approached me to do something on The Upsell. I have to say I was intrigued and wanted to learn more about her idea so I dug into a bit of Q&A with her.

Russel (Me): With customer service software already supporting business efforts and customers already engaging with each other on community platforms, why do you think there’s a disconnect on marrying the two on social media?

Ashely: I think there is an inherent fear of losing brand control. In customer communities, the company still retains a fair amount of moderation. They have the power to remove messages they deem inappropriate, slanderous, or otherwise not something they want available in the public sphere. In social media, once a message goes out on a customer’s profile, there’s almost no taking it back. That’s a really scary prospect for a lot of companies.

Me: What would you say to brands that would be hesitant to allow customers to speak on their behalf?

Ashley: First, I completely understand. It sounds like a crazy idea. But I have two big questions for you: One, how else do you plan to scale your efforts? And two, do you know exactly what you’re missing by not responding?

I ran an experiment last year where I sent 14 of the nation’s top consumer brands 280 tweets over a one month period. I only received about 39 responses, despite sending a variety of messages — from some very angry tweets, to others that were really positive and could have generated great word-of-mouth had their marketing team re-tweeted it. My suspicion was that these brands just didn’t have the capacity to respond to everything (some receive hundreds of messages in a given day).

Ashley Verrill A New Service Model: Customers Serving Customers

Ashley Verrill

But I don’t mean to say that these brands should have responded to everything, at least not themselves. Every time someone mentions your brand on social media, it creates an opportunity to start a conversation. The more conversations you can foster about your brand the better — but customers are more apt to see those interactions as authentic and natural if they come from other people, rather than just the brand saying “this is why we’re awesome!”

That’s why I’m suggesting companies empower customers to respond on their behalf. It solves both the scale challenge, and allows companies to take advantage of the true opportunity to create authentic conversations about themselves on social media.

Me: How would customers specifically benefit from this “customer power” model you’re proposing?

Ashley: Customers benefit because they can get the answers to their questions faster. Plain and simple. We live in a world increasingly comprised of digital natives. They are obsessed with instant gratification and will do anything not to wait for what they want. That’s why social customers service is increasingly popular in the first place.

Me: I can see public concerns around formally “empowering” brand ambassadors such as HP’s  “wb2001”. Would this be seen as free or unpaid labour? What would you say to that?

Ashley: What I’m suggesting would be free in the traditional sense in that these customers wouldn’t be paid. That would defeat the purpose — they would then themselves become “employees” of the company. People like wb2001 voluntarily choose to spend their time responding to other customer questions — no one is being forced to do anything. Now, these customers are incentivized in other ways. They garner notary for being a recognized “expert” of that brand. All of the gamifications tactics that work in the customer community space could certainly be transferred into the social media experience.

Me: Do you see any companies moving towards using this model or software? If so, who and how are they doing it?

audience 300x220 A New Service Model: Customers Serving Customers There’s aren’t any companies I know of that do this in any sort of standardized way right now. I interviewed someone over at GetSatisfaction the other day. They offer customer service tools for employees to respond to customers, as well as customer communities for customers to respond to each other’s queries. They told me about a scenario where customers could feasibly be empowered to respond in the way I suggested in my GigaOM article. The community management tool integrates with Hootsuite, a social media tool. So customers can technically see brand messages in their community dashboards, but they aren’t technically incentivized to do anything about it.

Me: Your biggest reason to promote this model is to address volume, such as the number of mentions Starbucks receives and couldn’t possible respond to all of. Why is this proposed software the answer and not more staff or better listening software?

Ashley: I already talked about the opportunity for creating more authentic conversations. You don’t want every conversation to be led by an employee. If you’re the only one talking about you, it can come off as superficial. The second reason is pretty simple. It’s expensive to hire people, and this will only get more expensive as the demand for this kind of service increases.

Me: One last question, is this the future of customer service?

Ashley: I think it could be. The biggest obstacle I see is resistance from the business community. They have to see that the opportunity outweighs the risk. I don’t think we’re there yet.

So do you think she’s on to something? Or do you think Ashley is interested in focusing business resources in the wrong arena? I’m really curious to hear your thoughts. Thank you to Ashley for offering to answer my questions.

 A New Service Model: Customers Serving Customers

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