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  Online Customer Service?
Can customers assist in the delivery of excellent customer service? is this good practice for service providers and are there any drawbacks in doing this?

That is a great question and we thank you for posing it.

In response, a community of customers/participants can certainly play a significant role in your customer service efforts. The community will provide a venue for customers to exchange with you on matters which are important to your delivery, support and development of services or products. Most importantly, by providing a venue for them to talk to you, you also show intent to deliver good customer support, which in turn leads to a greater propensity for promotion of your services and reputation.

In the real world, consumption of many products and services is based on recommendation and referral. It is often the case that someone will buy a CD or a book, for example, because they have read a good review or a friend or colleague has recommended it. In an online community the possible number and variety of recommendations is greatly increased, making them a powerful mechanism for guiding customer decisions.

Post-purchase, customers can also provide peer-to-peer support and information. There are many communities of software users, for example, where customers will assist one another and provide users (new and old) with opportunities to discuss their usage with other consumers. It is common to find that existing users are very knowledgeable, very good communicators and strong proponents of a product or service and can provide excellent answers to problems. Tapping into this knowledge and experience provides a strong case for peer-to-peer customer interaction in the form of an online community.

Obviously, if your own customers are providing part of your customer support service then fewer demands are placed on your own technical or support staff, therefore providing them with more opportunities to work on product/service delivery. In addition, the community may provide significant assistance with the development of your products and services, by providing information to you about how they use them, what problems they might have, and how they might be improved.

However, while your customers can be strong assets in terms of customer service and even sales, it is best not to place the responsibility of customer service solely on their shoulders. The most significant drawbacks or potential areas for damage are as follows:

1) Provision of incorrect or inaccurate information regarding your brand/service/product.

2) Discussions of bad customer experiences which, unless managed, may have a negative effect on your brand and/or on the perception of potential customers.

It is sometimes possible that your best community participants can serve as wonderful customer service providers in a more official role, either as forum moderators or some other form of status accorded to them. Of course, taking this step involves a great deal of trust and faith that they will continue to be positive supporters of you and your product, which in itself is a risk.

In conclusion, communities can indeed play a fruitful role in customer service. Some careful thought needs to go into whether your product or service can benefit from peer-to-peer support and whether you have the resources to manage such a community. On a final note, it is worth stressing that a community of customers still needs significant management and supervision in order that it remains a positive venue for exchange and a positive frontage for your brand and reputation.

Best of luck! Please feel free to share your thoughts and opinions on the boards; Online Customer Service

- Jon Nix and Pam Thomas
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