Q&A: Your disgruntled customers may be complaining to this man -- and all of the Internet

GetSatisfaction CEO says 'people-powered customer service' site can be a boon to marketers

Meet the man who could be your company's de facto customer service representative - a man you have never met and certainly isn't on your payroll. Thor Muller is founder and CEO of Satisfaction Unlimited, which runs an online community where customers air complaints about companies like Comcast, Apple, United Airlines, Whole Foods, Washington Mutual, Snapfish and Expedia to fellow customers and to the Internet at large.

The site bills itself as a "people-powered customer service" operation where customers can bond with others about their problems with a company. The online conversations sometimes create enough of a stir that a company will dispatch employees to interact directly with the posters. In fact, half of the 3,200 companies whose products and services are discussed on the site have had direct communications with disgruntled customers, Muller says.

Prominent technology blogger Marshall Kirkpatrick from Read Write Web describes Get Satisfaction as "the hippest place for companies to engage transparently with their customers - whether they want to or not."

Muller notes that the site represents a drastic paradigm shift for many companies - a shift driven by the ascent of customer service, which has become a core marketing technique in a world where anyone with a mouse can broadcast opinions about a company's goods and services.

In an interview, Muller discussed the site's origins as a seller of "schwag," or logoed promotional items given away by companies, and how some companies see its potential to help them - and some don't.

How did the company start out?

We had a side project a few years ago called Valleyschwag, a joke of a company [that featured] a schwag-of-the-month club. It took off and we ended up with a few thousand people we had to ship things to. We realized how painful it actually is to provide the great customer service we all want. One night after we released a new feature on our Web site and we went to bed, our European customers began coming online and noticed right away there was a bug.

Several of those customers went to the comments section of the blog and reported the bug. Within minutes, other customers came along and fixed the problem. We saw that while we were sleeping, the customer service issue had taken care of itself. It struck us to create a new way to leverage peer-to-peer support and allow it to replace the traditional e-mail funnel of trouble tickets.

We realized that many companies weren't going to be willing let go of their control of traditional channels - the channels that alienated customers. We decided to make this more of a Switzerland between companies and customers. Not only could a company engage their community. .... [It could] actually allow customers themselves to come together and pull the company in.

It has never even been easier for individuals to communicate with each other. Trying to get an answer out of a company has never been harder. The idea of pulling companies into the world of individuals who are hyperpowered now makes a ton of sense.

Is the Web 2.0 notion of user-generated content the key to helping companies cut call center costs and improve customer service?

Yes. We've spent the last 100 years in an Industrial Era getting better and better at automating and scaling. The metrics that companies have gotten used to on the support side are all about minimizing customer interaction. The irony there is, as we avoid our customers more and more, the more alienated they are and the lower the retention rates, the lower the profitability, the lower the customer satisfaction. The very efficiency that has been the goal is strangling companies.

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