Unsourcing – The Future of Customer Service?

Why bother outsourcing customer support when you can get your customers to do it for you. I’ve been watching the success of giffgaff with interest for a while. For those not familiar with giffgaff it is a UK mobile service provider where customers participate in the company’s business operations, specifically Marketing, Sales and Customer service.

As well as via the Giff Gaff community web page Facebook and Twitter provide additional channels for customer support. Support is provided socially, by fellow customers rather than using Giff Gaff employees.

This trend of setting up online communities to deliver peer to peer customer support has been dubbed “Unsourcing” and is not limited to Giff Gaff. The obvious reason for many organizations choosing to unsource is cost. Gartner estimates that using communities to solve support issues can reduce costs by up to 50%.

However viewing unsourcing as an opportunity to reduce customer support risks repetition of the same problems that have beset organizations who have chosen outsource their customer service to emerging economies, most importantly creating a disconnect between the organization and its customers. Simply viewing customer service as a cost center rather than for example an opportunity for differentiation and as a source of new product ideas is doomed to fail.

Unsourcing has a number of benefits. It allows Gen Y customers to interact with organizations via the social channels with which they are most familiar and to engage with fellow customers who share a common interest. In addition it creates a bond between an organization and its most important customers.

Unsourcing will become a key aspect of the customer service mix rather than a panacea. Organizations will still need to ensure that their customers aren’t left high and dry should they not get the right answer. If it’s a complaint they will need to ensure it is addressed as quickly as possible. They must monitor the channels to detect emerging trends, product problems or new product opportunities. In other words they will still need to tie the social or unsourced customer to business processes.

Empowered Customers need Empowered Employees

It’s now generally accepted that customers are more empowered than ever. What isn’t accepted is how we deal with this.

Customers have always had power. Power to take their business elsewhere. The perfect storm of web, social media and mobile technologies however has made it not only much easier to switch supplier but to also rapidly communicate your dissatisfaction with a product or service to the masses.

Trying to handle empowered customers through technology alone is a non-starter. It’s like trying to round up cats. Customers are unpredictable. Customers are engaging with companies via multiple channels, virtually and physically and trying to handle the multichannel customer by technology alone is impossible.

Many businesses are in a technology arms race with the customer always one step ahead. For example adding social capabilities to your business application stack may help you to sense problems better but it won’t make the customer experience any better. When one of your customer channels is direct face to face customer engagement it’s impossible to expect technology on its own to deliver a consistent multi-channel customer experience.

Empowered customers need empowered employees. Customer management is a dynamic, unpredictable, ever changing environment. Businesses need to empower their employees so they can roll with the punches.

So how do we empower employees?

  • Devolve decision making authority

Move decision making from the centre of the organization to your customer facing employees. Give employees the authority to choose alternative approaches to resolving a customer problems. Give employees the authority to resolve a complaint or an issue at the first point of contact. For example do senior managers really need to approve all refunds or give the authority to match a competitive offer?

  • Don’t tie employees to processes

Use business applications like case management that gives them options and allow employees to adapt or chose alternative process paths.

  • Support employee decision making

Use business tools that provide employees with a 360 degree view of their customer (customer purchase history, current contract status, projected lifetime value) and help them make better decisions.

Be realistic in your technology choices. Trying to handle customer processes by technology alone is impossible. Use empowered employees to fill the gaps where technology can’t go.