Suddenly even Fortune 500 firms like Apple are using GetSatisfaction, a sort of specialized social network for handling customer support.
GetSatisfaction transcends simple cost cutting. Whether they know it or not, they are applying the “quality is free” ideas of W Edwards Deming to web-based support. GS saves money and time for both vendor and user, while offering better support and lower cost, and actually improving the product at the same time.
How could it do all that?
Whitehorse was one of the early Web-based video game vendors, offering softgoods and Web-based software unlock in 1999. This created new problems and opportunities:
- Customer feedback on a new release was instantaneous.
- Free downloads increased support requests by at least a factor of 10.
- 5% of problems created 95% of support requests, and you could discover this almost immediately.
Email load quickly became overwhelming: users of demo software can be shockingly strident and demanding, considering that they have received something for nothing. There is a tendency to just disengage: forward the customer to a static FAQ that answers the most common problems, and deliberately delay personalized response in the hope they would go away. This sounds harsh, but there are only so many hours in a day. Whitehorse “solved” the problem by ending free trials — this reduced support load by over 90%, and did not hit sales at all, because, it turns out, most users of freebies will never pay for anything.
But I recall thinking, even then, that this missed a huge opportunity to improve the product. Freebie users sometimes offer you something valuable when they take the time to complain. If there were just some way to efficiently collect product suggestions, categorize them in a way that did not consume human time, the product cycle could be compressed to radically improve things in much shorter time.
In fact, in 2001, I briefly developed a startup idea around this, but my version was too complex (attempted to systematize the entire software process, including an outsourcing marketplace like Elance), too centralized (outsource support by direct-selling to individual vendors), and too narrowly marketed (attempted to deal only with software vendors).
GetSatisfaction fixed all those problems and more. They are a simple, broad solution to product support, with an efficient suggestion box built in. Clever. Hope they do well.