Breaking Customer Service Tradition

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Recessions are a difficult time to improve—let alone start—a traditional contact center. Companies of all sizes are looking for ways to serve consumers while remaining mindful of cost.

When Microsoft Live Labs launched its Photosynth product in August, the unit opted out of its parent company's large contact center. "Microsoft of course has a big investment in customer support," recalls Photosynth group manager David Gedye. "[But] this product is very different and it called for an [atypical] approach."

Analyzing uploaded photos, Photosynth looks for similarities to use in re-creating the photos' original environment, and then uses that as a canvas for displaying them. "It's [a mix of] photography, movies, and video games," Gedye says. "It allows people to create a new media type and experience."

Gedye and his team of roughly 20 felt they needed to directly connect with Photosynth users to answer any questions they might have while using the product. A traditional contact center was not an option. "I couldn't imagine training a support engineer on this technology," he says. "It's a product where the expertise and experience in using the service is going to make a big deal of difference. You really need someone who's passionate about [Photosynth] to help others."

So Gedye turned to Get Satisfaction, a community-based customer service platform used by more than 5,000 firms. Instead of offering an email address, knowledge base, or phone number, Photosynth created a widget that connects users to a Get Satisfaction page on which they interact with Photosynth employees.

Gedye says thousands of suggestions have come in since August, and, despite his team's small size, they're able to have everyone on deck to speak with users. "Get Satisfaction gets much more community involvement from people willing to put something into it than other [competitors]," Gedye admits. "It's a great place to start everything, and engagement has been fantastic."

Get Satisfaction has thrived because of the ongoing hunt for new ways to interact with customers, says Thor Muller, the company's cofounder and chief executive officer. "A lot of businesses are looking at the cost structure of the traditional [customer service] model and are saying that it may be too expensive and not scalable enough to provide what's necessary."

Muller says that many of his smaller clients use the site in place of an entire support initiative, but larger clients—such as Whole Foods—use it as an extension of existing outreach. He also sees services allocated with an eye to specific consumers. "Some businesses are using our channel for lower-end customers, and saving the call and email support for more-profitable ones," he says. "Plenty of companies are considering the future and moving entirely in this direction, but it's a process."

Get Satisfaction offers basic packages between $49 and $99. Gedye says the bargain was certainly a draw, but hardly the only reason to forgo traditional customer service. "Microsoft is probably not in the same position [as] a lot of start-ups," he says. "Everybody appreciates a low price point, but it was not the driving issue with us.... It was really about the experience." 

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