Outsource your Marketing, Sales & Service to your customers


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No – the title of this blog post is not a typo… nor am I suggesting you ask your customers to set up an offshore call centre in Mumbai… Some organisations have customers who are so passionate about their product or service that they do their marketing, their selling and their customer support on their behalf. Of course there’s nothing new here. Word of mouth has been around as long as trade and commerce, but the internet has enabled connectivity and a network effect to drive scale like never before.
Let’s take a practical example. A few months ago I had a problem with my iPod – the screen had frozen. I looked around for a reset button but couldn’t find one. So what did I do? Phone Apple’s call centre? Of course not, I Googled it. Someone called “Apple_Fanatic” had already posted instructions on how to reboot a frozen iPod in an online support forum. Apple had, in effect, outsourced the first line of their customer support to their customers.
Problem fixed, I then started reading other posts in the forum. Apple had just launched their 3GS iPhone. I’d heard that the 3GS had new video features and was supposedly faster but I hadn’t been onto Apple’s web site to tale a look at the new product. I was tempted to look into the 3GS but I also knew that the price was pretty high so I started to read the comments and reviews in the forum. Most were impressed with the video, but many questioned the level of improvement from the previous 3G model, especially since prices of the 3G had dropped considerably. As price was a more important factor to me than video recording or additional speed, I went onto a price comparison site, found the cheapest supplier (who was looking to off-load a bunch of 3G phones before the 3GS hit the high street) and I made my purchase. Once my 3G phone arrived I again Googled instructions on how to set it up, read reviews on the best Apps to download and I am now a happy and enthusiastic Apple customer.
It struck me recently that through my customer lifecycle with Apple I had actually had almost no direct interaction with Apple. I’d been into an Apple store once to see the 3GS iPhone working but my primary contacts had been through other Apple customers who had done Apple’s marketing and service on Apple’s behalf. You could argue that in this example, the outcome wasn’t entirely positive for Apple as I purchased the old 3G phone rather than the new 3GS, however, that would be more then offset by my long term value to Apple.
Of course not every company has products like Apple’s that are so good they drive passionate loyalty amongst their customers. But in many industries, companies are trying to establish peer to peer  (P2P) collaboration:
  • Amazon.com has a policy of “The best customer service is no customer service”. They probably led the way in establishing peer to peer collaboration with product reviews (despite a slight glitch in 2004 when many authors were exposed to have written glowing reviews of their own books!). Their customer service was famous for not publishing a phone number, instead, encouraging (or rather forcing) customers to self-serve. Early on they had their fair share of criticism for not having a large call centre (one angry blogger published their phone numbers ), but these days their customer service is pretty well regarded and most customer accept their online policy. I had a recent problem that was solved quickly and easily.
  • NikeiD allows customers to design their own sports trainer, review other users designs and post reviews online.
  • SAP has created a number of communities for Developers (SAP Developer Network), customers, analysts and consultants (BPX community) and for Business Objects customers (Business Objects Community). All offer a forum for members to exchange information, blog, collaborate etc. In total the sites have more than 1.3m members in 200 countries, generating around 6,000 posts per day.
  • O2 have created a customer forum with the explicit aim of encouraging P2P service collaboration. The site currently has 75,000 members who have posted 186k comments.
  • Salesforce.com set up IdeasExchange to allow their customers to suggest product improvements, then vote on suggested product enhancements. The same technology is also used by Starbucks and Dell to gather ideas from their customers.
  • As a slightly different example, Innocentive allows both companies and individuals to leverage the wisdom of the crowd. Users submit problems they are facing along with a “challenge reward” to tempt people into submitting solutions.
In most of these examples it only takes a tiny % of contributors to make P2P collaboration work (only a tiny percentage of Wikipedia users contribute to the content).  The challenge is how to maintain participation and reward and motivate those who participate. Wikipedia was recently reported to be losing tens of thousands of volunteers per month.
If you know of any good crowd-service examples, in particular ones that reward participants, then please let me know.
Laurence Buchanan
Laurence is CEO of EY Seren and leads EY’s global Customer & Growth practice. He works with clients to help them re-imagine growth through human-centered design, innovation and the transformation of Marketing, Sales & Customer Service functions. He is a recognized authority on digital transformation, customer experience and CRM, he has worked across a wide range of sectors, including telco, media, life sciences, retail and sports. He received an MA in Modern History from the University of Oxford.


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