Customer-Operators: Not Paying Them Doesn’t Mean They’re Free

People, it turns out, are desperate to be helpful.  Verizon has discovered this and joined the growing ranks of companies using what I call “customer-operators” to do the work employees used to do, everything from generating new product ideas to servicing other customers when those product ideas fail. Betting on the hope that all these customer-operators need in return are the intrinsic rewards of serving others and the status associated with becoming experts, Verizon is primarily making a cost play by inviting customers to perform routine customer service functions. The company has stumbled on some additional perks of engaging these “super-users,” like their knack for good improvement ideas, but this value is seen as peripheral.

At this point in the experiment, Verizon only sees the upside in recruiting and deploying an army of customer-operators. Before the company doubles down, I want to offer two points of caution:

First, customers are different from employees in ways that matter operationally. In general, they’re more difficult to manage, measure, recruit and fire.  Just because you don’t pay them, doesn’t mean they’re free. The price may be worth it to achieve radically higher levels of quality (Wikipedia) or a radically lower cost structure (eBay), but the tradeoffs aren’t as clear for traditional business models.

New management systems must be designed and maintained once you bring customers into your operations. And the effort may require more than a few “feedback stars” to measure and maintain quality. Reputation is a powerful incentive for good behavior, but it’s not all-powerful (see John Edwards). Have a plan for when the customer you’re relying on to provide good service doesn’t respond to another customer’s inquiry for days.

Second, those feel-good emotions of service and status may not be enough to compensate your most active (and valuable) customer-operators as time goes on. A lesson from many organizations is that when you ask customers to donate their labor, they often feel entitled to a seat at the decision-making table. Back to those feedback stars, I spent some time on the outrage of eBay customers when the color of their own stars was changed in an HBR case. Outrage may be too weak a word. There was an electronic revolt.

I’m with Verizon. I think customer involvement is a tremendous opportunity for many businesses. But I want to add a few caveats — customer-operators aren’t always easy to manage, and they aren’t always willing to stop at the operational boundaries you propose.  You may invite them on to the shop floor, but some of them are taking the elevator up to the C-suite.  Have a plan for what happens next.

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