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Harnessing the Wisdom of Crowd

Feedback from the masses can help with damage control and improve your brand.

This story appears in the September 2009 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Get Satisfaction started with a broken link. In mid-2006, Amy and Thor Muller were running a website called Valleyschwag that sold leftover promotional items for companies. A bad link sent to the site's subscribers for one of the promotions unleashed an onslaught of subscriber comments--many of them correcting the error.

That event helped the couple notice how much an online community could improve customer service. Unable to find a free online customer service site that incorporates user feedback, they launched one of their own in 2007: Get Satisfaction, billed as "people-powered customer service" through which companies use crowd feedback to improve customer relations.

"For small companies, so much depends on understanding the customers: what they want, need and desire," says Lane Becker, whom the Mullers brought in as a third partner and president. "So you respond to them directly, via e-mail. But eventually, half of your job is responding to customers."

Through Get Satisfaction, customers can search easily for answers to common product questions and also find users with similar interests, which fosters a community around the company.

Today, customers of nearly 18,000 companies--ranging from tiny startups to behemoths such as Zappos--use the service to post questions, complaints, praise and even new product ideas. Responses come from both users of the products and company representatives, and some businesses even recruit frequent posters as product "champions."

"Get Satisfaction makes it easy to turn customers into evangelists, which is truly what every business, large or small, needs to do to succeed," says Laura Thomas, community manager for Songbird, maker of a customizable digital media player. When a bug emerged in Songbird's software that wiped out the music libraries of a few iPod users, Songbird champions quickly jumped in and helped other users avoid the problem, providing important damage control for the brand.

Get Satisfaction isn't the only company taking advantage of the concept of so-called crowdsourcing: Services such as UserVoice, IdeaScale and Helpstream are all using the power of the crowd to provide businesses with valuable feedback. It's a Yelp-like model that's only beginning to reach its potential across the business world.

Companies know they can't contain what's being said about their products and services any more, says Brent Leary, co-founder of consulting firm CRM Essentials. "Customer service is more important than ever before because your customers are really in control," he says. "They can find other alternatives to your products by doing a quick search and click--so it's really important to create not just a customer, but also a partner who turns into an advocate for your company."

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