Unsourcing is the trend of setting up online communities designed to encourage peer-to-peer support. Whether it’s a forum on a company’s website or on a social network like Facebook, unsourcing communities allow customers to ask questions about a company’s products or services and have them answered by fellow customers. Lately, the concept of unsourcing has been touted in the media as the future of customer support.
While unsourcing is a relatively new buzzword – undoubtedly coined as a catchy counterpoint to the global outsourcing trend that has dominated customer support over the last couple of decades – the concept of unsourcing has been around as long as the internet has been mainstream. But with the incredible penetration of social media, unsourcing’s potential impact on a company’s bottom line has never been greater.
Many of the world’s largest brands in consumer electronics, telecom, and software are setting up forums and communities for customers to ask questions and receive answers from their peers. TomTom – one of the world’s largest makers of GPS navigation systems – saved $150,000 in customer support costs in the first two weeks alone of their unsourcing initiative. Best Buy – the largest American consumer electronics retailer – estimates that its online community of 600,000 users reduces its customer support costs by $5 million annually. In fact Gartner – the highly respected research company – has estimated that companies who build unsourcing communities can slash their customer support costs by as much as 50 percent.
Why Does Unsourcing Work?
So how do companies get their paying customers to chip in with customer support? The answer is surprisingly simple – people have a natural desire to share their knowledge. Motives can range from a desire to share and interact with other people, a desire to belong to a community, a need to demonstrate knowledge and worth, or a simple desire to help other people. Perhaps the biggest example of this type of knowledge-sharing altruism at work is Wikipedia – the world’s largest encyclopedia – created and run almost exclusively by unpaid volunteers.
In addition to the basic human desire to share knowledge, some companies are boosting the effectiveness of their unsourcing communities by offering virtual rewards to customers who shoulder a disproportionate chunk of the customer support load. For example, the software company Lithium has implemented a system where helpful customers can be rewarded with a “kudos,” which in turn can result in higher levels. This allows customers to boost their online status, even becoming a “super fan.” Although this status has no real-world value, the perceived benefit of elevated virtual status has proven time and time again – in a variety of industries – to stoke the fires of human motivation. This simple “gamification” of traditional customer support has allowed many companies to slash their customer support costs by a significant margin – at virtually no additional cost.
The Flaws In The Unsourcing Model
Although this recent flavor of unsourcing is benefitting from a little social engineering from savvy businesses, there are aspects of traditional customer relationship management services that unsourcing cannot replace. Unsourcing cannot answer questions that require access to confidential customer data – responding to billing errors for example. It’s also virtually impossible to apply the unsourcing model in industries where customer confidentiality is critical, such as the financial services or health sectors.
Additionally, serious customer satisfaction issues can arise when unsourcing solutions are deployed improperly. Unsourcing requires a strong grassroots base of customers in order to provide the level of peer-to-peer support capable of replacing some traditional customer support roles. This requires a strong expertise in social media and community building, and often requires a pre-existing, loyal, and passionate base of customers.
Furthermore, over-reliance on unsourcing as a replacement for traditional customer support roles can also be extremely frustrating for customers. In any customer-driven discussion forum, there are inevitably questions that go unanswered, or that are answered poorly. If a customer has difficulty getting a hold of traditional customer support staff in these instances, anger and frustration is the natural result. In the age of social media, the anger and frustration of only a handful of customers can quickly snowball, resulting in a storm of negative publicity and criticism.
It would be a huge mistake to view unsourcing as a replacement for traditional customer support. Unsourcing communities should be implemented with caution and should be carefully monitored by a trained team of support staff who can quickly address unanswered queries and direct customers to specialized customer support channels if necessary. Despite its drawbacks, the unsourcing model certainly holds a great deal of promise. Unsourcing allows companies to scale their customer support without having to hire additional staff. Used responsibly and in a limited scope, most companies can use unsourcing effectively to drastically reduce their customer support costs.
About the Author
This is a guest article from contributing writer David Veibl, online marketing consultant and business writer. He is now working for Capita Customer Management, a specialist in customer relationship management services. Contact him on Twitter, @DavidVeibl.