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Game companies call it "The Volunteer Model" of Customer Service. What is that? Who ever heard of the volunteer model of customer service? Nobody but the online services industry, as far as I can tell.
This is what they are making, I am sure.
I like the grocery store. I like to shop there, and wonder what kind of yummy meal the person with the cart in front of me is making from the chicken breast, wide egg noodle pasta, sour cream, and chicken broth they are buying. But if I asked to bag groceries for sixteen hours a week for free, my local grocery store would probably tell me to fill out a job application or go away. If I said instead that I would do it for a deli sandwich on the days that I bagged groceries, they would probably roll their eyes at me and tell me to go away, again. If I begged and pleaded, they would probably call security.
Why does the Internet Services Industry think they should be any different?
In any case, they are different. They have (and recruit) volunteers who provide customer service, moderate message boards, act as web designers... the list goes on and on. These people have set tasks, set days/hours to be 'on duty,' codes of conduct, and superiors who work for the company. In return, they usually reward these volunteers with free services.
If a person is working as an agent of a for-profit corporation, that person is an employee. If the company does not administer the actions of the person, then that person is a volunteer for the community. I believe that EQ's Guides, UO's Counselors, AOL's message board moderators and other such volunteers are actually employees, without all the benefits (and drawbacks) of being an employee.
I do not believe that for-profit corporations should use unpaid labor to help run their company. If they need help running their service, that's fine (it is actually a good sign), but they ought to hire somebody to do it. That's the way the world works. They even have a slough of prospective employees already at their fingertips. What better employee to have than someone who has already shown that they would do that job for free?
Will it cost the company more? In hard dollars spent, probably. The cost of an excellent customer service program, however, is a cost that should not be regarded solely as hard dollars spent. A first-rate program will reap rewards in other ways, such as higher customer satisfaction, positive word-of-mouth, and positive conventional & unconventional press, which each of these services are sorely lacking in at the time of this writing. All of these things will become increasingly important in a progressively more competitive marketplace. An excellent customer service program could (and very likely would) make the Company more money than it spent on the program to begin with.
I think it is fine that corporations want to make a fair margin; that's what they're there for. I am unhappy with the fact that companies believe that the only way they can provide adequate customer service is by using free labor. If the only way to make money is to use unpaid labor, I submit that making money from the service is probably not viable. Although, I would bet that using unpaid labor is not the only way to solve the problem of customer service. The people who create these services are so smart and so innovative that they create this whole new industry, but they can't figure out how to provide (comparatively) low cost, effective customer service? I don't buy it - not for a minute.
Companies should facilitate and encourage (but not administrate!) peer support, and let paid employees of the company deal with customer service. To let volunteers deal with customer service issues causes two major problems for The Company (and therefore its customers): 1) They do not have the kind training they should have to give good customer service, and 2) They do not have the supervision (required because of lack of training) over their volunteers that they should have.
I have absolutely no problem with some players creating a guild called The Helpers. I do not see an issue with The Helpers 'taking over' an empty building in town and calling it a Visitor's Bureau, and deciding that they will always have at least one person on duty to answer game-play questions. I think it would be great if The Helpers made up story lines and got people involved with them. I don't even have a problem with The Helpers writing an e-mail to GM George saying: "Hey George, we want to put on this event, and we think it'd be really great if you could show up in a red suit riding a reindeer at the Britain Bank at 6pm Eastern..." and George doing just that. I consider these people to be volunteers, and I think it is fabulous.
What I have a problem with, is the Company having any involvement with the administration of peer support. The Company should not have any say-so how The Helpers run their guild, as long as it is in compliance with the End User Agreement. No favoritism should be shown; the Company should not aid The Helpers in any way that they would not aid the rest of their player base, either as individuals or as a group.
If I were an employee of the Company, I would make sure that my game had in-game instant messaging, some sort of in-game e-mail system, and a function that would allow players to type "/who all The Helpers." I'd make sure that I set aside space for players to use, rent, and/or buy, to use as a Visitors Bureau in every town, and let the players run it.
Peer Support should not be limited to in game means. I would make sure that my Company had made efforts to add an appropriate "Big Eight" Usenet newsgroup. I would set up easy-to-use official message boards (moderated by someone in my company's Customer Service department), and other methods of extra-game support, where volunteer-types could help answer questions for and discuss ideas with their peers.
I do not presume that I have The Answer for online game customer service problems. I do think that the AOL lawsuit and the more recent UO lawsuit will change the way customer service programs are handled within the companies that make these games, and I think these changes will be for the better. I think it will be better for the Guides, better for the customers, and better for the companies.
I hope they see it that way.
December 2000 Imaginary Realities, the magazine of your mind.
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