Is crowdsourcing the future of tech customer support?

How will customer service evolve?
How will customer service evolve?

Last September, Vodafone Germany, Germany's second largest network operator, inspired by the sharing economy, launched a new service with online platform, in which customers could turn to other customers to get tech support.

As tech has grown more complex, Vodafone Service Friends lets customers go online to browse, find and book the "techie next door" to help with issues that aren't covered by the company's usual support network, for example, installing child-safe filters, setting up WLANs, or extending TV boxes from room to room.

We spoke to CEO Manuel Grenacher to discover more details about the service, and the trend of enterprises turning to P2P networks to let customers solve issues faster and at their convenience.

TechRadar Pro: Can you tell us what Vodafone Service Friends is, and what it is offering customers?

Manuel Grenacher: The platform we built for Vodafone Germany Service Friends is a peer-to-peer (P2P) marketplace site, where Vodafone customers can get additional help with non-Vodafone products. It's easy for users to go online, browse the service, and book a local tech support person – what I like to call "the techie next door" – to help them solve tech issues or help them get the most out of their devices.

The new service gives customers a very easy, flexible way to get local help, fast. They can see who in their neighbourhood is offering help, the prices for the help, what their specialties are, and once they've chosen a techie, they can book a time that best fits their schedule.

TRP: Why is there even a need for such a platform? Isn't this just admitting that operators aren't putting enough resources into customer support?

MG: Last year at Internationale Funkausstellung (IFA), the consumer trade show, Vodafone launched a test pilot in Berlin, the first in the German market. The initial goal was to identify whether the service benefits customers or not. Vodafone Service Friends doesn't replace any other support service. Instead, it completes and extends the operator's customer service that exists in their shops, on the phone or on the internet.

We know tech products are getting more complex and feature-rich, and customers often feel they don't make the most of their products, or they feel they don't have the time to set things up themselves. There are lots of situations in customer support that aren't really the responsibility of the company, but are frustrating for customers all the same and can certainly impact how a brand is perceived.

For example, it's often suggested that parents install child safety filters on their internet connection, but not everyone has the time or knowledge of how to do this. Or, you might want to extend your digital box beyond more than one room – you have the directions on how to do it, bought all the appropriate tech products, but still don't know how to do it.

Whilst you may buy these products from a provider, it's not necessarily their responsibility to put it together or set it up for you, but often any negativity that consumers feel toward setting it up gets blamed on the brand.

Vodafone Service Friends is a way to take care of these problems quickly and conveniently. We also feel that given the range of providers, the prices are very competitive.

TRP: It seems a very incongruous idea that a business would even want to use "sharing economy" tactics. Do you think consumers are really ready to manage their support themselves?

MG: Yes, definitely. With Vodafone Germany, just as with other big companies such as Apple, Sony, or Samsung, where the products quickly evolve and can be quite complex, there is an online forum where customers help each other resolve tech questions. You can post your problem online, and usually there are answers within hours if not minutes of you posting.

Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.