Should Your Brand Use Actual Customers to Deliver Customer Service?

As customer experience becomes an increasingly important piece of the puzzle for brands, so too does providing effective customer-centric support. For a variety of reasons, innovative brands are beginning to look to their own customer bases as untapped customer support resources.

Loyal customers can be incredibly knowledgeable about the brands they love, so why shouldn’t they be eligible to answer basic customer service inquiries? Let’s dig into the pros and cons of integrating your own customers into your existing front-line team.

What Does the “Customer Agent” Model Look Like?

In general, retail and ecommerce brands are the best suited for using customers as customer service agents. An ideal scenario might involve these trained “customer agents” answering simple customer questions via phone, chat, or video call, then routing the question to a specific service area if it’s too complex for them to handle.

How do brands incentivize customers to act as agents? By paying them for their time, of course. Cash is always king, but brands with particularly high levels of customer loyalty can potentially even offer credit towards future purchases. By rewarding and mobilizing an already satisfied customer base, brands can create a self-perpetuating positive feedback loop that pays dividends.  

Brands Leaning Into the CX Curve

Delivery service and Stella Connect client Postmates is already partnering successfully with Directly to route specific kinds of customer inquiries to customers themselves. Earnin, a fast-growing payday advance app, is also exploring ways to use its own engaged customer base to deliver service. Explains Hetal Shah, a CX, Product and Operations leader at Postmates, “Executed properly, leveraging customers to deliver service on your behalf can be a win-win for all parties.”

Certain brands and in fact, certain kinds of customers, make ideal candidates for customer-delivered service. Brands who already inspire highly engaged and vocal customer bases, for example, might be able to harness that advocacy for internal use. Conversely, brands that operate in highly-regulated industries might not.

The Benefits of Customer-Delivered Support

The benefits to using your own customers as support agents are obvious. From an operations perspective, leveraging customers to provide support can provide a cost-savings relative to hiring, training, and outfitting customer service agents in-house. Customer agents can and should be equipped to work remotely, and training – once the right process is in place – is minimal. For businesses and startups looking to scale their customer service operations quickly, this solution can be a game-changer.

For customers, the opportunity to earn extra money on a flexible schedule can be quite appealing. If the sharing economy, which PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates to reach $335 billion in revenue by 2025, tells us anything, it’s that consumers are ready and willing to help shape the brand…for the right price.

Perhaps most importantly, brands looking to build deeper connections with their customers stand a lot to gain from customer-delivered support. More than 73% of consumers say that a brand’s transparency – essentially the level of trust they have in the brand – is a more important consideration than price. And who are customers more likely to trust when they’ve got questions about a product or service: the brand itself or another customer just like them?

Inherent Risks to Turning Over Brand Control

The technology-enabled solution of using customers to answer support queries isn’t right for every business. Highly-technical brands, for example, might find that securing the training and resources necessary for getting regular customers up to speed is too big a burden to bear. Brands that exist within heavily regulated spaces like medicine or finance will run into serious compliance hurdles when implementing customer agents. For some industries, the idea is simply a non-starter.

There is, of course, risk baked into turning over control of your brand’s outward messaging. Customers simply don’t feel the same level of responsibility to the company as actual employees. A tight, replicable training program becomes essential, as does an accurate way to measure customer agents’ success during interactions.

And worth serious consideration is the customer experience itself. Yes, the authenticity of dealing with a non-employee is refreshing, but what good is the interaction if the representative can’t solve the problem at hand? Do you (or should you?) provide customer agents with access to your full CRM, and what kind of safeguards do you have in place for interactions that are unexpectedly complex or contentious? When customers are the voice of the brand, oversight and process quickly become priorities rather than line-items.

Considering Tapping Into Your Customer Resource Pool?

If your brand is thinking of leveraging customers to provide customer support, how should you weigh the pros and cons? With so many considerations and variables in play, it’s easy to see why most brands will place their bets on the known quantity of the traditional customer service matrix.

Implementing a new program, particularly one that involves actual customers, should always be done using a Crawl, Walk, Run methodology. Allowing customer agents to ease into the process gives everyone plenty of space to make mistakes, ask important questions, and scale operations at their own pace. It’s an objectively terrible idea to replace all your contact center agents with customers in one fell swoop.

Once you’ve made the decision, setting up customer agents for success is paramount. Empowered agents simply perform better. Not only is the right technology important, appropriate training and the right reporting structure ensures the agents can seamlessly escalate an inquiry to the right place. At the end of the day, if using customers to deal with customers negatively impacts your FCR, you’re doing something wrong.

Positioning your new customer-to-customer support funnel as a benefit is key, as is ensuring agents are open and honest with customers about their level of affiliation with your brand. Transparency is critical. The point of using customers as agents is to build trust with your customers, not damage it.

And lastly, remember that enacting a customer agent program without any visibility is just taking a shot in the dark. Quality control relies on contact center managers being able to spot and correct issues quickly. Giving the heads of your contact center access to real-time agent data through a people success tool like Stella Connect allows them to refine the process as it develops. Direct, immediate feedback improves agent morale and increases their engagement, both of which are necessary components of a running a successful remote customer service program.