A long list of big brand names are outsourcing customer service to unpaid, voluntary enthusiast users who staff and sometimes manage online company forums. I'm just not getting it, and I thought you might help me out.I'm betting that a fair number of IT folks are doing this pro bono work, as the tech brands were among the first to exploit the phenomenon (and you know things that commoners don't). The premise is simple: enlist people who like to solve problems, and possess the capacity to do so effectively; turn them loose on other less patient/qualified folks; and award them with special access, insights, and other qualities of status in lieu of monetary reward.
And that's the part I don't get. The free part.
None of the old fashioned symbols work anymore, as anybody who once wore a power tie (yours truly) or wouldn't wear a straw hat after Labor Day would tell you. It's the same for work: the Internet allows anybody to do anything, so it has severed the direct links between occupation and reputation that might have once mattered to anybody. Today, true status is as fleeting and imperfect a quality as it is a valuable commodity.
But I'm still bugged by the free part, for two reasons:
First, it's a risk for the company to outsource its services to independent agents, isn't it? It you're one of those expert volunteers, I'm sure the company you're helping is getting lots of great insight and social kwan...until you decide you've got better things to do with your time. Or you get hit by a bus.
Service is one of the key ways to truly differentiate one business from another, so is the challenge to recruit more vocal and committed advocates? I don't understand why the strategy wouldn't be to hire good people, treat them like kings and queens, support their 100% autonomy and honesty, and, well, keep the capability in-house. Not doing so is a risk that should have costs attached to it.
Second, the free aspect of free just bugs me. Are we human beings really so needy of recognition and affirmation? Maybe so, come to think of it, but don't we need money in order to cover our expenses? Status doesn't pay cellphone bills, and only gets you the goodie bag if you've walked the red carpet.
Which brings me back to my first point: aren't outsourced networks hosted by super-users a nice addition to a customer service strategy, and not the substitute for one?