Method Products has a problem its competition would envy. The 100-person company asked its customers to help spread the word about its household cleaning products. Now those customers—Method calls them "advocates"—call and send in handwritten letters, homemade crafts projects, and lots of e-mail, more than 2,000 per month. To help ease the strain on the customer support team (two full-timers and a handful of contractors), Method last year added a knowledge base of frequently asked questions to its Web site that includes everything from "Why don't you list ingredients on your bottles?" to "Method's co-founders are cute. Are they single?" Gunther Lie, Method's director of interactive marketing, says that has helped add some rigor to what was formerly a "loosey-goosey" process. But how to deal with the huge volume of indirect communication that abounds on the Web—on blogs, message boards, and social networks—is something Lie admits he's still trying to figure out.
A San Francisco startup called Get Satisfaction hopes to help companies like Method do just that by putting the customers (rather than the company) at the center of the solution.
Get Satisfaction describes its product as "people-powered customer-service." Named Satisfaction, it is part online forum, part FAQ, and part social network. It works by allowing anyone to ask a question, submit an idea or complaint, or just "talk," all of which gets posted on the public Satisfaction page for everyone to see. Companies can participate directly, too, with their responses marked as official answers, but other users can chime in with answers of their own. A rating system pushes the best ones to the top.
If that sounds simple, that's the point, says co-founder Thor Muller. The problem with most customer-service solutions, he says, is that they're too complex. They're reactive, not proactive, and they require customers to think like an employee or a librarian to find the answers they want. Get Satisfaction's approach, he says, is to help companies think more like customers. By giving users the ability to engage in conversations across multiple companies with a single login, Satisfaction unlocks "a lot of the participation that ordinarily doesn't get realized in the silos of a traditional forum," he says.
Method is one of few dozen companies—including Timbuk2, Twitter, and Digg—that are already experimenting with Satisfaction, which is free both to companies and users. Muller says Get Satisfaction plans to offer fee-based add-ons, such as detailed analytics, after the site's public beta launch in mid-September. (Topic-related advertising might be served up, too.)
He says the idea for Satisfaction came last year when he and his partners at Web design consultancy Ruby�red Labs launched a now defunct side-project called Valleyschwag, offering Web 2.0 fans the chance to get packages of promotional freebies (BusinessWeek, 6/26/06) like Flickr (YHOO) laptop stickers and Videoegg T-shirts for $15 a month. What began as a geeky in-joke quickly turned into a real business once tech blogger buzz (BusinessWeek, 7/17/07) kicked in, Muller says, and within a few months, Valleyschwag had 1,500 subscribers. That translated into hours of tedious customer-service work each day for Muller and his partners, most of it answering the same few questions via e-mail.
"The lightbulb went off," Muller says, when they discovered their customers were actually asking and answering each others' questions in the comments section of the Valleyschwag blog. "In the middle of the night, our European customers would troubleshoot problems on our Web site while we were sleeping." It wasn't the most elegant solution, and most customers still went to e-mail. But Muller sensed an opportunity.
By making existing conversations public, "you can translate what is currently noise into actual information," he says. "Instead of 100 different e-mails saying the same thing, it's one public problem or question and 99 people saying I have this problem or question, too."
At Twitter (BusinessWeek, 4/2/07), that transparency is already changing the internal dynamics around customer service. In July one frustrated Twitter user wrote the company's support team describing a problem he was having with the service.The e-mail response he got back was friendly but ultimately unsatisfying: "It's a bug we've been meaning to fix, but it's fallen behind bigger priorities; very good point though. I've shared your comments with the team." But when another Twitterer with the same problem posted about it on Twitter's Satisfaction page—and other users chimed in—the problem became a priority. "Everybody in the company could see it, which gave the support person and product manager the leverage they needed to make change happen," Muller says. Within a few days, the bug was fixed.
Method Product's Lie says he saw Satisfaction as a promising way to take the pulse of customer opinion to enhance—rather than replace—the customer-service on his company's own site. "It's a way to engage ourselves into the conversation and at the same time keep it authentic," he says. But he expects smaller companies without dedicated marketing or customer-service teams to rely much more heavily on Satisfaction and to integrate it more fully into the architecture of their existing Web sites.
Tony Wright, co-founder of a three-person Web startup called RescueTime, says he hopes so. On the first day of the software's private beta test with 250 users, RescueTime got 18 e-mails, Wright says. "Which is great, but also pretty horrifying, when you start doing the math. What happens when we invite 1,000 users? Or 10,000?" As Wright explained on RescueTime's blog, "at the end of the day, anything that allows customers to find satisfaction without pulling us away from making the product better is pretty darn compelling for us." Within a week, Wright had scrapped RescueTime's own online forum ("a spam magnet") for Satisfaction and hasn't look backed since. So far, he's—yes—satisfied.