The Best Customer Support Team? Other Customers

Last Updated Apr 28, 2008 1:50 PM EDT

When your iPod earbuds aren't working or your chainsaw is hard to start, where do you turn to for help?

Just a few years ago, the answer was pretty straight forward. You'd call up the company's customer support line or hunt down an FAQ on its Web site.

But my habits have changed in this regard, and I bet yours have to. When my car radio started spewing static as if trying to communicate with a Mars rover, I'd didn't call the dealer or search the automaker's site. Through experience, I've learned that user forums often have just the remedy I need, and it's usually just a few clicks to find. And so it was was with my radio problem. Many other users had encountered the same issue, and pointed me to loose wiring easily fixed with a screwdriver.

Companies that understand this behavior make it easy for their customers to talk to and support each other, cutting their support costs dramatically as a result, note Harvard Business bloggers Josh Bernoff and Charlene Li, both principals at Forrester Research and authors of a recently released book on social technologies, Groundswell.

They point to the example of computer maker Dell, which started a support forum in 1999 and staffed it with 30 forum moderators.

Now, five years later, the support forum is many times larger than it was then. And the number of moderators is no longer 30. It's five. And that's because the members of the community are moderating it themselves.
Read their post Economies of Scale in a Personalized World to get a better insight into how firms can leverage the reach and expertise of their own customers.
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.