Mike Fairman, Giffgaff: Call time on the call centre

Mobile network operator giffgaff 'crowd sourced' its customer service using online tools.

The word 'community' can mean many things. To some it means church fetes and Neighbourhood Watch schemes, and increasingly it is used to describe common interest groups brought together by the internet. Rarely does it describe a business model and marketing partnership.

At giffgaff (an ancient Scottish term meaning 'mutual giving') our business model was inspired by online communities such as Wikipedia and Facebook, where the enthusiasm and contributions of members create something brilliant.

At the outset, we imagined giffgaff, a mobile virtual network operator, would run on the principle of mutuality - one that rewarded its community of members (or customers) for doing much of the work normally done by employees. By removing call centres and big budget advertising campaigns, we would be able to keep costs low and pass the savings back to members. That meant we could be extremely competitive against the bigger networks on price, but build close relationships with our members.

Even before the beta launch of our mobile service in November 2009, we launched a member forum. This drew in digitally native, tech-savvy individuals best placed to power new product development and customer service, and to generate word of mouth online. We found the traits we needed - early adoption and creative participation - particularly among students. So we created a campaign to involve them.

The aim of the community was to help shape the business and its products. We asked members to post their suggestions on a dedicated website page. Of the 2,000 ideas generated, more than 140 have been implemented, a further 70 accepted and 62 are being considered. We applied the principles our members loved - simplicity, transparency and great pricing - to the idea of bundles and created 'goodybags' containing everything our members liked about other networks' bundles, without the things they didn't. We removed the restrictions and small print. The impact of this was felt through increased 'member get member' (MGM) activity.

We also 'crowd sourced' our customer service. For giffgaff's prosumer audience, this approach delivers better service than the 'big network, call centre' model. So far more than 20,000 questions have been asked, with an average of 9.6 responses to each question. Questions have been answered within three minutes, on average, regardless of the time of day. Account-based queries are handled by us.

The community has continued to play a significant role since giffgaff left beta - creating apps, holding events, designing point of sale and being vocal across the net.

But mutuality means the business needs to give something back. So giffgaff tracks and rewards every act of help by members under a biannual payback scheme. The last payback in December 2010 distributed more than £128,000 back to the community as airtime, money or a charitable donation. The top earner received more than £900. We shall continue to work to provide a steady stream of reasons to share giffgaff and be rewarded.

Eighteen months on, a fiercely loyal community following is testimony to the success of giffgaff's business model. We have tens of thousands of members, with more than a quarter coming through MGM; customer satisfaction is higher than any of the big networks; we have been named a 'top five' social media brand in the UK (in the Social Brands 100 Report); and we retain a base of committed members who continue to save money through the value giffgaff provides.

VIEWS IN BRIEF

What are the essential elements of content that is 'liked' on Facebook?

Relevance is key - news feeds are becoming more and more crowded with increased activity by friends and an escalating volume of companies pushing out communication. Without relevance you are lost.

What is the most memorable digital PR activity in the past six months?

The Pepsi Refresh campaign really sticks out. The concept of supporting young people with great ideas holds great value. It is only in the US at the moment, but the idea of supporting, promoting and funding young people who want to get new ideas off the ground is a positive thing.

Mike Fairman is CEO at giffgaff

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