The 74-year old man had never used a smartphone before, a fact that he clearly felt self-conscious about. The expert gave him frank advice on products and plans. She let him know about a tablet with both phone service and a large screen suitable for less-nimble fingers. She told him how to cancel the automatic upgrade after a few days. She walked him through setup. She commiserated with him over a tough day. She let him know she’d be out for the afternoon but available to help again later in the evening.

Twelve exchanges and 1,185 words later, the man had his tablet and was a happy customer. He also had this to say about his experience: "I don't think I've had anyone recently show this much effort in answers or helpful guidance... she wants to make a difference and make you feel good about asking!"

Wow.

This was inarguably a wonderful customer experience. Except the expert wasn’t an agent for the company. She’s not in tech support. She doesn’t even work for the company. In fact, she’s a nurse that just happens to like this brand of smartphone, knows how to use it well, and had some time on her day off to help a customer.

Stop trying to wow your customers

Back in 2010, the idea of wowing your customers got a black eye when the Corporate Executive Board published results from a study showing that delightful customer service doesn’t create loyalty. Instead of wowing your customers, the authors essentially said, just try to not to tick them off.

Even that low bar can be difficult to leap. What ticks off customers the most—befuddling self-help, slow responses to online queries and emotionally unsatisfying interactions—can be prohibitively expensive and difficult to fix.

That’s because often Maintaining large, fixed teams to handle unpredictable traffic is costly and inefficient. And it’s a rare paid agent who can provide an authentically satisfying interaction after answering the 80th ticket in a queue. Empathy doesn’t scale under those conditions.

It’s a rare paid agent who can provide an authentically satisfying interaction after answering the 80th ticket in a queue. Empathy doesn’t scale under those conditions.

These factors for a customer service organization—cost, talent, and even industry-wide resignation—can make the idea of customer service organizations wowing customers seem unattainable.

But if you can’t engage and wow your customers at scale, what if your network of expert customers can?

Company-community tit-for-tat

Companies like Airbnb, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Republic Wireless are doing just that using a new model—on-demand customer service—that matches customers who have questions with expert users of the product, who earn rewards for resolving questions quickly.

Here’s how it works: when questions come into the helpdesk and match certain criteria, they automatically get routed to groups of expert users who are best able to answer them. The experts choose to answer what they want, when they want, on demand. The one who provides the satisfying answer earns the main reward.

The results are significant. The average first response time across the companies is 4.5 minutes, down from hours. The average customer satisfaction rating is 93 percent, up from as low as 33 percent. And the experts resolve on average 71 percent of the questions routed to them, saving the in-house team to manage more complex issues.

More telling is the steady flow of customer feedback, of which these examples are typical:

    What a quick & knowledgeable response! There should be a bonus happy face for Stephanie!!

    Amber is the best when it comes to giving advice to stressed & freaked out pinners. Kind, considerate & with empathy she was able to resolve my situation with multiple suggestions as to how. I am so relieved!

    CoreyK was right there to help me with answers to how I can get him back up and running. Awesome! Republic Wireless is the best by far!!!

    Wow. Thank you so much for answering my question so quickly. I appreciate it. Thank you so much again.

    RolandH was efficient and complete in his answers and even incorporated a little humor, every experience has been exceptional.

The power of a community that cares

Why does on-demand customer service provoke such delighted feedback? Speed is a big factor. Experts compete with each other to answer questions first and their ability to address people’s issues in their moment of need is very satisfying.

Also key is the quality of the peer interaction. The experts are enthusiastic users of the products, so they have built-in context that can’t be taught easily.

“Customers really like connecting with other customers. They trust their answer as much as agents,” said Jonathan Keene, director of customer support at Republic Wireless.

“Customers really like connecting with other customers. They trust their answer as much as agents.”- Jonathan Keene

Customer service is well-suited for an on-demand work model. Instead of sitting at a desk and answering tickets in a cue for a fixed number of hours, each expert develops personal preferences (times they are available, types of questions they like to answer) and earns rewards for positive results. Individually, they remain patient and generous. Combined together,

What motivates these experts? Virtually none of them are professional customer service agents. Many are working professionals in other sectors. The rewards—cash in some cases, credits in others—help. But equally compelling is a desire to apply the knowledge and skills they’ve built using a product they love.

    Interested in hearing more? Join us at Relate Live San Francisco on May 11th and 12th.

“I know the product. I use it every day, and I’m very excited about it,” said Bonnie Fuller, an expert for Nextdoor, the neighborhood social network. “It gives me great satisfaction to be able to share my love of Nextdoor with others.”

In a traditional customer service model, it’s hard to create wow. But with the right support and incentives, it’s possible that your customers can wow each other.

Lynda Radosevich is head of marketing for Directly and a former technology journalist. Find her on twitter: @lyndaradosevich.