Is crowdsourcing the future of tech customer support?

The “techie next door” will help customers out

Last September, Vodafone Germany, Germany’s second largest network operator, inspired by the sharing economy, launched a new service with online platform Mila.com, in which customers could turn to other customers to get tech support.

As tech has grown more complex, Vodafone Service Friends lets customers go online to browse, find and book the “techie next door” to help with issues that aren’t covered by the company’s usual support network, for example, installing child-safe filters, setting up WLANs, or extending TV boxes from room to room.

TechRadar spoke to me to discover more details about the service, and the trend of enterprises turning to P2P networks to let customers solve issues faster and at their convenience.

TechRadar Pro: Can you tell us what Vodafone Service Friends is, and what it is offering customers?

Manuel Grenacher: The platform we built for Vodafone Germany Service Friends is a peer-to-peer (P2P) marketplace site, where Vodafone customers can get additional help with non-Vodafone products. It’s easy for users to go online, browse the service, and book a local tech support person – what I like to call “the techie next door” – to help them solve tech issues or help them get the most out of their devices.

The new service gives customers a very easy, flexible way to get local help, fast. They can see who in their neighbourhood is offering help, the prices for the help, what their specialties are, and once they’ve chosen a techie, they can book a time that best fits their schedule.

TRP: Why is there even a need for such a platform? Isn’t this just admitting that operators aren’t putting enough resources into customer support?

MG: Last year at Internationale Funkausstellung (IFA), the consumer trade show, Vodafone launched a test pilot in Berlin, the first in the German market. The initial goal was to identify whether the service benefits customers or not. Vodafone Service Friends doesn’t replace any other support service. Instead, it completes and extends the operator’s customer service that exists in their shops, on the phone or on the internet.

We know tech products are getting more complex and feature-rich, and customers often feel they don’t make the most of their products, or they feel they don’t have the time to set things up themselves. There are lots of situations in customer support that aren’t really the responsibility of the company, but are frustrating for customers all the same and can certainly impact how a brand is perceived.

For example, it’s often suggested that parents install child safety filters on their internet connection, but not everyone has the time or knowledge of how to do this. Or, you might want to extend your digital box beyond more than one room – you have the directions on how to do it, bought all the appropriate tech products, but still don’t know how to do it.

Whilst you may buy these products from a provider, it’s not necessarily their responsibility to put it together or set it up for you, but often any negativity that consumers feel toward setting it up gets blamed on the brand.

Vodafone Service Friends is a way to take care of these problems quickly and conveniently. We also feel that given the range of providers, the prices are very competitive.

TRP: It seems a very incongruous idea that a business would even want to use “sharing economy” tactics. Do you think consumers are really ready to manage their support themselves?

MG: Yes, definitely. With Vodafone Germany, just as with other big companies such as Apple, Sony, or Samsung, where the products quickly evolve and can be quite complex, there is an online forum where customers help each other resolve tech questions. You can post your problem online, and usually there are answers within hours if not minutes of you posting.

The idea of customers helping customers is really the future of customer support. We are taking this idea to the physical world. We have also seen from other sharing economy companies that people are quite happy to crowdsource help or assets, whether it’s a ride in someone’s car (Blablacar.com or Uber), finding a place to stay (Airbnb), finding a dogsitter (DogVacay in the US), or someone to collect their packages (Myways in Sweden).

And, of course, people are happy to offer their services or assets in return for money. The platforms that connect consumers to make these transactions are also very good for helping customers see exactly who the providers are, what their qualifications are, how much they charge, and most importantly what sort of feedback they are getting from past customers.

We’ve noticed with our main platform, Mila, that individual providers are very conscious that they will be rated for their job, and so they have an extra incentive to do it well, courteously, and at a price that’s fair.

TRP: How does Vodafone ensure that its brand credibility doesn’t get damaged?

MG: Again, we believe it starts with the individual providers. In the first instance, providers are vetted by Vodafone. In the second instance, anyone who uses them can leave feedback, whether good or bad. We have really seen that most of our providers take their work through our platform seriously and want to do a good job. Last but not least, additional qualification measures are in the works.

TRP: Where did the idea for Vodafone Service Friends come from?

MG: The idea of Vodafone Service Friends comes out of the success of its online forums where customers already help one another. The idea was to extend this ability to the physical world where a customer who is a tech enthusiast could help others complete simple jobs or tasks they didn’t have the time or knowledge to do.

Vodafone Service Friends is an extension of the customer support the company already offers. It’s certainly not meant to replace the regular customer support you get when, say, your digibox doesn’t receive a signal, rather it offers another channel of help for those jobs that you might not want to do but are not necessarily Vodafone’s job either.

TRP: Can you tell us more about early numbers and customer reception?

MG: It’s still very early days for Vodafone Service Friends, but upon launching we were able to sign up 60 Service Friends. In Zurich, where we have a similar partnership with Swisscom, we now have 1,000 providers signed on, and the most popular services are helping install additional software (antivirus, for example), TV installation (usually extending a digibox beyond the main TV room), and finally WLAN installation.

TRP: How do you find the Vodafone Service Friends? How are they screened (or not)?

MG: Vodafone Service Friends were invited through Vodafone. Vodafone wanted the Service Friends to be Vodafone customers as the reasoning was that they would be more familiar with the products. Those who want to join are asked a series of questions with regards to Vodafone and their technical knowledge. In addition Vodafone, in cooperation with Mila, undertakes a background check to make sure that the person is identifiable under their real name and has a personal profile picture.

Once you offer services in your own name, with your own picture and the full knowledge you will be rated, the stakes are higher to do a great job in order to get further bookings.

TRP: Do you see other operators doing this? Are other brands using crowdsourced customer support?

MG: We think it will take off. This is our second partnership with an operator. Our first was with Swisscom in Switzerland. It makes sense. Tech products are getting increasingly complex and even the tech-savviest of us might just want to hand the job off to someone else to get it done.

This is not meant as a replacement to the core support that operators offer, but as an extension of customer support to help consumers get more out of their products. Or, for those short on time, to get the tech tasks they need done, quickly.

And the idea that customers can help customers is also growing, and not just in tech. Myways, the delivery service we mentioned earlier, is actually an initiative of DHL. We’ve also seen B&Q in the UK and its highly successful Streetclub program where local people share tools and DIY know-how.

Earlier this year, Kingfisher, which owns B&Q, revealed that the program resulted in more sales, not less, as you’d assume might happen as people can share tools. But then, more people were motivated by their wider access to tools to do more DIY.

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