Can online networking deliver us from the evil of bad customer service? Thor Muller is betting that “people-powered customer service” will trump outsourcing and the impersonal call center. Muller is CEO and co-founder of getsatisfaction.com, a user-driven customer service community. Launched in September, 2007, the site provides forums where customers discuss problems with products and services of 2,500 companies from Apple to Zappos — whether the company participates or not. It also provides tools for companies to adopt getsatisfaction.com as their official customer service resource. So far, the site has drawn more than a million unique visitors. Here, Muller discusses why customer service is the new marketing, why you should bring edge users into the core of your business, and how a company you might expect to get it (Facebook) and one you might not (Comcast) are taking very different approaches.
How did this start?
We started this side project called Valleyschwag. You know all the t-shirts with logos that companies give away? Here in the Bay Area there’s a ton of that because of all the tech companies. Spurred on by some friends of ours in the middle of the country, we decided it would be funny to put on a schwag of the month club. It started as a joke but it took off and had a couple of thousand subscribers in a few weeks. We experienced the pain of customer service — hundreds of emails every day, mostly repetitive emails. Once in the middle of the night we released a feature on our web site, went to bed, and when we woke up we saw there was all this activity in the comment section of our blog. It turned out there was a bug we’d released, users began to report it in the blog, and the other users began to answer those questions. It struck us as interesting.
Is this an alternative to outsourcing customer service to places like India?
Over the last 10 years, the effort required to communicate with hundreds of your friends has gone toward zero. It’s almost effortless to tap out a note to literally hundreds of people through Facebook, email, or Twitter. Meanwhile, the trend with big companies has been to outsource and mechanize and it’s getting ever harder to get through to a live person who knows as much as you do about the problem you’re trying to get help with. We’re creating a kind of social network designed for companies and customers to communicate with each other. Basically it’s pulling the company into that faster, more human method of communication.
Sometimes, I’ve found better help from web forums than from the actual company.
Your best customers know more about the product than many people who work inside the company — certainly more than most of the low-paid, call center people who are reading from a script. The problem with traditional forums — which in many cases worked quite well over the years — is that they’re often difficult to search or the answer is buried way, way down. Our system is kind of the next generation of leveraging this conversation for very specific outcomes.
This can happen with or without the company’s participation?
In the last six and half months, we have almost 2,500 companies that have been added and about half of them are participating. When customers start to converge and talk, for many companies this is gold — real engagement with current or future customers.
How do companies come to your site?
Sometimes companies discover it because they have a Google alert. Sometimes they’re invited by users or by us. We’ve got companies large and small that are actively participating, ranging from Comcast and Google and Paypal to more up-and-comers like Twitter and Timbuk2. We also provide tools for companies to embed these customer communities into their own websites. The easiest way is a little widget that companies drop into their help page or contact us page. It intercepts the customer’s issues and redirects them into the community.
Do companies ever recoil because they find it embarrassing to have their problems aired?
Historically that’s been true. Our proposition is different; it’s a neutral space. We call it a Switzerland between companies and customers, and it’s designed for positive outcomes. Companies are well-served for problems to be reported on getsatisfaction. They have a very clear role, which is to respond, the outcomes are celebrated, and the tone of the site is different than many others. We have a company-customer pact, which is basically a statement of shared responsibility for creating open, honest relationships. We have made it a much safer model for customer engagement.
So it’s not a place to just flame the company?
Exactly. I will say, if a company doesn’t respond over time, the tone can deteriorate. There’s a real advantage for companies to respond in a human way quickly –it goes a long way to defuse ill will.
Can you cite an example where a company stonewalled users?
Facebook is a good example. There are a lot of people whose accounts get disabled by the company for various reasons. Facebook is very non-transparent about why people get disabled, and people get very frustrated because they spend a lot of time cultivating a network. Maybe they’re college students, and they have all their friends on there. We had just a ton of people come into the Facebook area and complain and talk among each other about how it could be resolved. The company hasn’t responded; it’s a policy of theirs not to. The longer they don’t respond, the more the voices of derision consolidate into this massive derision.
Who has responded effectively?
Comcast, who people see as a much more monopolistic type of company, is very human and responsive on getsatisfaction and elsewhere. It’s doing a lot to change their relationship with their customer. When somebody from the company responds, it’s immediately taken out of the context of company versus customer and into the context of people who are trying to work toward a resolution.
How is customer service the new marketing?
Companies like Zappos, which looks at every customer interaction as a branding opportunity, breed huge lifetime value. In a very basic way, we’re seeing that customer service is the ultimate way of creating word-of-mouth marketing and creating lifetime value with customers.
How will your company make money?
We are going to be rolling out services that allow companies to increase their engagement — communications tools for interacting with customers, analytics tools for understanding users and the problems they’re having.