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  • The Wisdom of Customer Crowds

    This is one of my favorite customer service anecdotes right now, and I can’t seem to stop blabbing about it.

    The story tells of how 30Boxes, an infectious social calendar app, abandoned conventional wisdom in their pursuit of extraordinary customer service. It’s a prime example of how embracing chaos can energize a business. (It was originally told to me by Nick Wilder of 30Boxes on my Customer Service is the New Marketing panel)

    The Trouble with Trouble Tickets
    Nick, along with serial entrepreneurs Narendra Rocherolle and Julie Davidson, started another company a few years ago, the photo-sharing site Webshots, ultimately acquired by CNET. As Webshots’ customer base and support issues began to scale up they did what every proper technology startup does; they installed trouble-ticket software to respond to all the customer issues. They anointed staff as official reps, established a process that worked with the software, and began to answer customers in this ostensibly optimal workflow.

    Here’s the first plot twist: they discovered that almost fifty percent of the support issues coming in through that system went unresolved. Consistently. The remainder of the issues were sheperded through this siloed system by the staff, but were rarely viewed by the product developers or managers. Even with this efficiency-focused software, devoted support personnel, and the best of intentions Webshots was unable to rise to the goal of decent customer service.

    Closing Issues by Opening Conversations
    When the team launched their new startup, 30 Boxes, they decided to try something different. They opted out of trouble ticket systems altogether. Instead, they set up a forum. Just an old-fashioned discussion board, albeit one with a pretty, minimalist design. They didn’t publish an email form, and avoided any of those trumpeted CRM applications we read so much about. It was just a standard open source forum that anyone could post to.

    This time the results were dramatically different. Right away users began to post questions, bugs, product ideas, company praise, and whatever else was on their minds. All this interaction from customers and the company was public, not hidden away in a private database like before, and each day the vibrant interactions pulled even more users into the conversation. All this hubbub created interest and involvement, stoking the passions of the customer community.

    Now here’s the second plot twist: Instead of half of customer issues withering away unresolved in a trouble ticket system, on the 30Boxes forum almost 50% of customer issues were resolved by other users! Of the remaining issues, the vast majority were handled quickly by the 30Boxes product team which monitors the forum closely, not as their job, but because they’re eager for user feedback. And the biggest pain point of any customer service system–answering the same questions over and over again–mostly vanished now that all answers were posted publicly instead of sent to a private email inbox.

    Just like magic.

    New Rule: Wherever you can, keep your conversations with customers public

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    Thor Muller

    About Thor Muller

    Thor is perhaps best known as the co-founder of Get Satisfaction, where he served as its original CEO (2007-2009) and later CTO (2009-2011).


    1. That’s a great story — and one that resonates.

      Not only that, I bet that their customers were a lot more satisfied with their experience, having been greeted by other *real* 30 Boxes users. I’d take that to form email any day!

    2. This is reasonably true of public issue-tracking systems as well, so it’s not so much about ticket vs. forums as it is public vs. private.

    3. Salesforce.com has done essentially the same thing with its IdeaExchange site, and Dell garnered quite a bit of attention for its Ideastorm site (which, incidentally, is powered by Salesforce.com).

      I had a chance to talk to one of the product folks at Salesforce.com responsible for the launch of IdeaExchange, and it’s interesting to note that Salesforce did not abandon its ticketing system (like Nick did with 30 Boxes). Instead, they decided to use the IdeaExchange as one of the feeders to the ticketing system. Apparently this is working well, despite the added volume. Bugs and ideas generated by their passionate customer community are prioritized, refined and sometimes resolved by that same community.

      I’m not as confident as you are, however, that this approach is right for every company. Salesforce.com is in the rare position of not just leading but dominating its category, so they are less worried about the impact of IP theft than a company in a more vulnerable competitive position might be. The other obstacle my friend at Salesforce.com had to overcome was the fear held by some people that the wrong piece of critical or negative content published on the IdeaExchange for the world to see might derail a big sales or partner deal. Again, Salesforce.com’s position of dominance in its category had a lot to do with the company’s willingess to take the risk.

    4. @Shawn: IdeaExchange is a solid effort, particularly for such a large company. To give full credit, I think it’s Crispy Ideas sitting on top of Salesforce.com that is powering their effort.

      It doesn’t surprise me that Salesforce didn’t abandon their ticketing system–their core software is based around that model. Given their structural legacy, it’s not clear to me that they’re the most likely force to lead away from it, even if they are innovating at the edges.

      You’re right that there is fear within companies of embracing this kind of model. Most big companies today will not willingly embrace all that it implies. However, the choice may not be theirs. The tools are emerging that push the center of the conversation outside of companies, into the more volatile waters of the open Web. The ones that get comfortable giving up the illusion of control over their message and over the conversation will thrive.

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