Crowdservice: The future of customer support?

19th Jul 2010

How is the growing trend for sourcing customer support from the crowd impacting the customer service sector? Guy Stephens explores.

You're invited, but it's our world. Take your shoes off at the door. If you want to barter with us, get down off that camel! (Cluetrain Manifesto)
We've always been social. We've always helped each other. We've always exchanged knowledge. There is nothing new in this. What has changed is the emergence of platforms that are easily accessible and allow us to engage with each other on a scale that has never existed before. Geography, time and cost are no longer the barriers they once were. The only real barrier is inclination: "can I be bothered to help?"
The emergence of platforms that enable people of like mind to congregate and converse, discuss and debate, complain and criticise, albeit virtually, at any time of the day poses one of the biggest threats to established business models.
The company is simply a construct that we have created over time, but it has come to represent the mundane, the barrier, rather than the facilitator, the answer rather than the question. We need to reassess, redefine, re-engineer. We need a new construct that reflects the way we now think, the way we now engage, and in time the way we will come to do business. Do you dare?
New types of conversations are taking place in areas that companies have traditionally been able to ignore and overlook. These authentic conversations and stories take place in spaces between the individual's demands to be heard and a company's desire, at times, simply, not to hear. In this constant state of tension, social media is tipping the balance in favour of the individual. As the individual shouts out "I will be heard", the balance of power is firmly shifting in favour of the customer. The crowd is finding its voice.
The level of volume of these conversations is becoming deafening. Companies will not be able to ignore it. People are talking to each other, helping each other, tearing down boundaries, creating new ways of thinking, doing, collaborating. Not just you and me, but you and you and you and you and you and...
In this evolving paradigm, we share our knowledge freely at any time to anyone who needs it, to anyone who wants to listen. We offer help freely at any time to anyone who needs it, to anyone who wants to listen. It is out of this that trust is built. This is part of the new rules of engagement.
Understanding the new rules
But does your business understand these new rules of engagement? If I am willing to help anyone at any time, what are the implications for you of this? What does it mean to the definition of employee? What does it mean to the definition of the working day? What does it mean to ownership, control? What does it mean to the word 'brand'?
These conversations are going on without your business. People are helping your customers without you. They haven't been asked by you, they haven't been invited by you, they're not even waiting for you to ask them, they're not seeking your permission. Does your business know about it? Do you even care? Does it matter to you? Do you matter anymore?
Customer service is moving outwards into the hands of the crowd. For instance:
Logitech's customer support forum: KachiWachi (Logi Legend)
Date registered: 22 May 2006
Total messages posted: 41,360 as of 12 July 2010
Total Kudos received: 524
YouTube search results for:
  • "Change iPhone sim card": 5,110 videos, one of which has been viewed 609,156 times
  • "Find the best mortgage": 1,870 videos, one of which has been viewed 1,652 times
  • "How to change a motorcycle tyre": 101 videos, one of which - 'how to change a motorcycle tyre by hand' - has been viewed 102,032 times
Look at TripAdvisor. As of June 2009, there were 25 million reviews and opinions on more than 490,000 hotels and attractions, more than 11 million registered members, more than 25 million monthly visits to
A by-product of this is that social media has given the long tail a renewed sense of meaning and value.
Tapping into the crowd
New technologies and methods of communication are emerging, enabling people to tap into the crowd at any time. The crowd is always on, always there, ready for our questions, ready to respond. The crowd is the most powerful knowledge base we know. And it is free to all to access.
When we have a problem with a product or a service we turn to our friends, Google, forums, Twitter... The only time we really need to contact the company that we bought the product or service from is if we have a problem arising from a specific process a company has devised. Even then that process or the solution might be outsourced now.
From a customer service perspective, we are seeing closed one-to-one transactions moving more and more towards far more public and open one-to-many and many-to-many conversations. The smartphone and the tablet are only the beginning of bringing the crowd to me and me to it. I carry the crowd in my hand.
If people and customers are providing the solutions to my query, will companies have to compete against their own customers to provide their service? What type of service will they be providing in the future? What will customer service look like? Where will it be provided?
I know you've heard of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Wordpress, Flickr, Delicious. But have you heard of:
  • Quora, a social networking website that aggregates questions and answers to many topics and allows users to collaborate on them 
  • Pownum, a site for rating organisations
  • ComplaintCommunity, a complaint management community
  • Plebble, a consumer and business rating service
  • Klout, a service measuring online influence
  • Qype, a platform for local recommendations and reviews
  • Get Satisfaction, a community allowing customers and companies to connect around the products and services they use
  • Amplicate, an opinion aggregator
And what about ZenDesk or BearHug? These are online help applications which you can literally plug in. ZenDesk has iPhone and Android apps which allow you to provide ticketed customer service 'on the go'.
Sharing ownership
Companies who have opened their eyes, share ownership. They work together with their customers, they listen, hear and respond. They create fulfilling experiences. They design products and services which reflect the needs of their customers.
Crowdservice, like any channel, is about understanding where and when to use it.
Twelpforce, a team of Best Buy technology pros offering tech advice over Twitter, is the beginning of a move to open up a company's knowledge base to the outside world. In doing so it begins to blur the line between company and customer, inside and outside.
The aforementioned Logitech rewards users for providing support to the community with a system of 'kudos', encouraging participation with recognition of their value to the community. Microsoft famously has its 'most valuable players' – members of their community that spend a great deal of time helping others, again, not for money, but for recognition.
DIRECTV, with a customer base of 18 million, has eight of its customers handling 228,000 contacts per month. It treats them as special customers, with special privileges, supporting them with the information and access they need to provide support.
New businesses such as Jive and Lithium have emerged, offering community hosting and support services, deploying expertise in community dynamics and rewards. One of  Lithium's customers, Linksys, has been able to deflect 1.4 million calls on its support community, saving around $10m a year on support costs. 
Beginning of the journey?
And yet, I can't help thinking that this is only the beginning of that journey. For all its (r)evolutionary advancement, platforms such as Twelpforce still carry the weight of our industrialised past on its shoulders. Although the grip is loosening, the company still holds the balance of power firmly in its grasp. For me, the point at which the pendulum begins to swing back towards the customer, will be on platforms, such as help engine Cofacio, where people help each other. The collaborative energy of people creates a far more powerful knowledge engine than ever before. Companies, customers, people feed into it. The platform simply facilitates the discussion. 
Twitter might be a fad, FourSquare might be a fad, Facebook might be a fad, but the underlying reason why people use them is what companies should be focusing on and preparing for the future with. All of us now have at our fingertips access to the most powerful tools of immediate self-expression that we have ever had. 
Each time we tweet for an answer to a question posed, we are signalling the beginning of a new way of working, a new way of engaging with each other. This new way of engaging is more open, immediate, effective. It seeks answers from first-hand experience, at source, and now. Whether you are on a train, at work, sitting in the park, walking your kids to school, preparing dinner, makes no difference anymore...
Here is some perspective from one of the most customer-focused firms in the business. Tony Hsieh, CEO of, wrote in his book 'Delivering Happiness':
"There was a feeling of no judgement, and as I glanced around the warehouse, I saw each person as an individual to be appreciated for just being himself or herself, dancing to the music…
"The entire room felt like one massive, united tribe of thousands of people, and the DJ was the tribal leader of the group. People weren't dancing to the music so much as the music seemed like it was simply moving through everyone. The steady wordless electronic beats were the unifying heartbeats that synchronized the crowd. It was as if the existence of the individual consciousness had disappeared and been replaced by a single unifying group consciousness, the same way a flock of birds might seem like a single entity instead of a collection of individual birds. Everyone in the warehouse had a shared purpose. We were all contributors to the collective rave experience."
So where does this leave you? What do you think the implications of crowdservice will be on your business?

Guy Stephens is a senior consultant at Foviance and founder of the LinkedIn group - where social media meets customer service. He has over 10 years experience working in the digital space in online marketing, eCRM, natural search and latterly social media. Guy is an avid tweeter (@guy1067) and occasional blogger on

Replies (4)

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By Rbacal
20th Jul 2010 16:27

Guy, well done research on this, but I have a question. The landscape is littered with hundreds if not thousands of failed "crowdsource" communities that frustrate and anger customers while damaging the reputations of the companies associated with them. They far outnumber the "usual suspect" success stories you mention in your articles (those few poster child companies that crop up all the time as successes).

My favorite example was the American Express forums up to about 18 months ago, which should have been a horrible embarassment -- they finally did it right, but there are tons of examples TODAY.

Do we not have a responsibility to exercise some journalistic ethics and portray both sides?


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By guy1067
21st Jul 2010 15:13

Hi Robert. Thank you for taking the time to read this post, and you're right, there is another side to the story, which has not been presented, but that wasn't the purpose of my post. If I'm honest I wasn't necessarily trying to present a balanced or unbalanced picture of the idea of crowdservicing. I was simply reproducing the fairly random and unstructured thoughts I had as I wrote the piece. As for there being a responsibility to exercise some journalistic ethics and portray both sides - hands up, you got me there. When I write, I tend to have an idea and then write it up from my experiences or research that I have done. Do I think about presenting both sides of a story fairly or adhere to journalistic ethics (does such a thing exist?) - no. Do I feel a sense of responsibility to present both sides - no. If I wanted to do that I would have written a different type of piece about all the failed attempts at crowdservicing. But I now know what my next blog will be about!

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By Rbacal
21st Jul 2010 16:03

We come from different backgrounds I think, and it's an interesting question, which I have broached a few times as to whether writing on the Internet where one might have influence over many people, should be guided by ethical principles of balance, etc, but that's another topic completely; Should one consider possible misimpressions on the part of potential readers that could cause them or others damage? I'll leave that to people smarter than I.

You probably know me well enough to know that I am distressed at the overwhelming positiveness of the material about social media as it appears in media, and the costs (I think very real costs) or creating false impressions on the parts of those who's expertise lies outside of "social".

Creating situations where people are investing time, energy and money in failure is not good for owners, customers, or the economy in general, and it's just my opinion, but it's MY job (maybe not yours, that would be up to you), to do the best I can to provide people with information so they can make reasoned decisions about their businesses, or as customers, if they want to do business with companies that try crowdsourcing and fail to provide ANY support in any way.

But, that's the role I've chosen, and while I wish others thought in similar ways, I forget that they don't.

As for crowdsourcing for customer support, of course it's been going on since there were computers, literally, and it's probably the oldest and best established function of what people call social media. When it works.

I could probably, in an afternoon, come up with hundreds of url's to crowdsourcing attempts, many by major mulitnational companies that have failed badly, and in some cases the lack of support as a result of taking that path has probably cost their customers hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost income, ruined the companies reputation, and cost the company millions.

I think people should know.


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By Neil Davey
21st Jul 2010 16:47

Very interesting discussion here. To my mind, those businesses who are approaching crowdservice primarily as a way to save themselves a princely sum on customer support by diverting traffic away from their own customer service teams to the 'crowd' are always in danger of coming a cropper. And deservedly so. To assume that you can just palm off consumer queries onto your community without taking any consideration of the complex nature of community dynamics and reward is absurd.

The businesses that seem to have made crowdservice a success probably don't factor the crowd into their support equations and aren't cutting back their support resources in the assumption that the crowd is going to take up the slack.

The support communities are a separate and independent entity in a sense; they are there for those customers who specifically seek out the wisdom of the crowd for their queries, or are part of the community in the first place (often part of the otherwise passive 90% in online communitities compared to the 1% that produce the vast amount of discussion - and probably support).

Companies that start laying off agents and instead push customer service queries to their communities are making customer service mistakes rather than crowdservice mistakes.

As Guy discusses in his feature, the crowdservice phenomenon is something that has emerged independently of most businesses - and the challenge is for organisations to establish how they can nurture, support and connect with this resource.


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