GetSatisfaction is working to become the Switzerland of customer service, a neutral intermediary between warring factions of customers and companies on the CS battleground. They’re off to a good start, with 413K unique visitors per month and a good set of investors (O’Reilly Alphatech Ventures, Jeff Clavier’s SoftTechVC, First Round Capital).

It’s an interesting experiment. I’m paying close attention, because it challenges one of the lessons I’ve learned: serve a single master and take a side.

At Visible Path, we tried to simultaneously serve the sales representative and the sales manager. The goals of these two audience were often different, the tensions often significant, and it was difficult to serve both. Ray Lane at Kleiner Perkins often depicted the struggle in pictures like this:

Arm wrestling

In practice, the feature that the sales manager wanted was the same feature the sales rep hated, and vice versa. In a Visible Path example, the sales manager often wanted to automatically see who the sales rep knew, while the sales rep wanted to keep these relationships confidential. Sometimes, we found a way to make both audiences happy. More often, we frustrated them both.

But GetSatisfaction isn’t taking sides – instead it is extending itself equally to companies and the customers of these companies. From their about page:

Get Satisfaction is a direct connection between people and companies
that fosters problem-solving, promotes sharing, and builds up
relationships. Thousands of companies use this neutral space to support
customers, exchange ideas, and get feedback about their products and
services.

It’s an especially interesting experiment because the Switzerland
goal is baked into the company from the start. It’s one thing to imagine a
consumer-slanted site becoming more company friendly as they searched
for a business model, but GetSatisfaction has targeted the Switzerland
status since founding. From CEO Lane Becker’s initial blog post:

Hi there! I’m Lane Becker… We started Satisfaction
to help companies and customers find better ways to interact. A good
company’s customers have always been more than just something to
“support,” but historically that’s been the main channel through which
they’ve been able to communicate. Now, thanks to the internet,
customers have a lot more to say, and smart companies know they need to
listen — and even (gasp!) engage.

Other companies in the crowd-sourced customer service space fall all over the spectrum:

Cscompanychart

Among them,TheConsumerist (1M uniques) and the ThePoint (23K uniques) are the most consumer-leaning, arming consumers with the weapons they need to fight. On the other end of the spectrum, CrowdSound (14K uniques),
UserVoice (127K uniques), and the SalesForce IdeaExchange (unknown) are basically company tools for gleaning crowd wisdom. GetSatisfaction (413K uniques) is alone in the middle.

There’s a credible logic behind GetSatisfaction’s approach – the idea that consumers benefit more if companies are actually around to listen:

You’ve all seen the “I Hate” Web sites out there, right? I Hate Microsoft, Wal-Mart Blows, I Hate Starbucks?They’re all fun for, like, ten seconds. Once you realize that their
cries for retail justice are essentially occurring in a vacuum, with no
engagement or even acknowledgment by the companies being hated, you
move on. Boring.Complaint sites are similar. They also try to harness the ire of
customers to make companies step up and take notice, but, again, what
company representative would dare step foot in an atmosphere like that?
It’s a veritable digital lynching waiting to happen. Obviously, we’re
trying to find a middle ground here at Get Satisfaction, a place where
both companies and customers feel comfortable expressing their love,
hate, and everything in between.

 

That said, it’s easier said than done, and some of the tensions involved are visible:

  • The GetSatisfaction Satisfaction Hall of Shame announced last year has sort of disappeared. Aggregating and promoting this list could be great from consumers – telling them what companies to avoid – but it’s easy to see how this would be bad for business.

GAME THEORY AND NON-ZERO GAMES

Game theory might offer some insight here. Game theory frames zero-sum games (also called conflict games!) and non-zero games. In zero-sum games, there is a winner and a loser, a finite pool divided between two parties. In non-zero or positive-sum games, both parties can win, and win together by cooperating. The prisoner’s dilemma is a popular example of a non-zero game.

In the end, I think GetSatisfaction’s success may depend on whether customer service is a positive sum game. I’m not sure if it is. On one hand, it’s credible to suggest that companies win when they deliver their consumer great service. On the other hand, my experience consulting for customer service organizations suggests that, at least in the short term, the economics don’t support great customer service.

WRAP-UP

Wrapping up, I may be skipping a step and applying the wrong rule. Perhaps the rule is not: serve a single master and take a side. Perhaps its: define whether the game is zero-sum or non-zero. If it’s zero sum, then serve a single master and take a side. If it’s not, then Switzerland is still an option. I’m staying tuned and looking forward to see how GetSatisfaction fares.

Let me know what you think:

  • Is customer service a zero-sum or positive sum game, or is the wrong lens to use altogether?
  • Do you think GetSatisfaction can play Switzerland successfully, or do you think they will need to pick a side?

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