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Online Customer Service Communities: Overtaking Traditional Call Centers?

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Online Customer Service Communities: Overtaking Traditional Call Centers?

April 27, 2009
By Michael Dinan
TMCnet Editor
Much of what we report in this global online community dedicated to call centers has to do with cost-saving technologies, such as interactive voice response, or “IVR” systems, or those that improve customer service – an asset worth protecting in this down economy.

Recently, for example, we reported on an effort from the United Kingdom’s leading energy supplier to improve the customer experience by deploying software that captures real-time feedback from callers.
Less often, we produce stories about call center agents themselves – unexpectedly interesting articles such as one that described a major airline’s decision to uproot its Indian operations because complaints from U.S. customers about the offshore outsourcing couldn’t be disguised by training the Indian agents to speak with American accents and giving them American names.
I recently came across an article by Steve Lohr of The New York Times that revolves around contact center agents – an interesting piece that examines how Verizon Communications Inc. (and who could argue with that company after its earnings report today?) is helping forge a trend that could spell very bad news for paid agents.
Since last summer, Verizon (News - Alert) has transferred much of the responsibility in certain divisions that require high levels of customer service to volunteers – people who have a passion for the wireless, Internet and TV technologies that Verizon peddles, and who like to feel useful.
Sound strange? It is. But it’s also true. They’re called “super-users,” and they work through online forums that are gradually developing into self-sustaining databases where customers can go to answer all their questions.
Parts of Lohr’s article focus on one man – a 68-year-old retired software engineer who is an expert on Verizon’s high-speed fiber optic Internet, television and telephone service –  forms part of “an emerging corps of Web-savvy helpers that large corporations, start-up companies and venture capitalists are betting will transform the field of customer service.”
The business model for this brand of customer service certainly is not limited to Verizon or telecom providers in general. According to Lohr, online customer-service communities are spreading rapidly across many industries.
The super-users themselves get a sense of satisfaction from helping, Lohr reports, and there are ranks that they attain depending on how well they do, as well as sneak-peeks at products that haven’t hit the market – a big hit among people who are already following their hobbies and interests into the volunteer positions.
You get the idea.
It’s a fascinating concept, notwithstanding the fact that the business model may be keeping jobs from willing U.S. citizens searching for work in this down eocnomy. We’ll track Verizon’s progress as the first year of its experiment approaches this July.

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Michael Dinan is a contributing editor for TMCnet, covering news in the IP communications, call center and customer relationship management industries. To read more of Michael's articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Michael Dinan
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