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Vodafone 'service friends' offer custom tech support

Vodafone Germany pilots peer-to-peer tech support that deliver help to users' doors - for a fee. The scheme is meant to bring together customers needing assistance and young, knowledgeable users.

The German division of global telecoms giant Vodafone is trying out a new way to offer service to the less tech-savvy. The program, called "Vodafone Service Friends," aims to connect anyone who needs assistance with young Germans who are good at everything from setting up Android phones to home entertainment systems.

Nearly all of the Vodafone Service Friends are high school teens or young people in their 20s. To launch the program, Vodafone partnered with Berlin-based startup Mila.com, which connects local tradespeople with customers. Rates for service range from 10-25 euros per hour.

Third-party service

"I think of it this way," Mila's communication manager Anastasia Albert said. "If you buy a table from Ikea, you generally have to assemble it yourself. But with home entertainment systems, DSL setup, and especially mobile devices, customers go back to the telco for help, even when they buy the devices at big box retailers or the like. And that becomes really expensive."

If the test rollout in Berlin proves a success, it will be launched nationally, Albert said.

One of the 63 Vodafone Service Friends is Philipp Schultze, an 18-year-old Berliner spending his gap year volunteering in a hospital. Schultze was selected from a pool of Vodafone's younger customers before the program's launch this summer.

"I basically just got an email invitation from Vodafone," Schultze explained, and then added with a laugh, "Maybe Vodafone could see from my Google searches on my phone that I am always reading about tech support."

Schultze supports Android devices and can set up home entertainment systems. In that sense, he and the other Vodafone Service Friends are more like highly skilled geeks than support staff trained by the company. Though they are not trained by Vodafone, Vodafone does put new recruits through an online test to gauge their levels expertise.

And then of course there's the market factor - if they don't solve a customer's problem, they don't get paid. This has tended to attract qualified applicants to the program.

Tech support a relatively low priority

Vodafone spokesman Thorsten Hoepken said that the top three reasons that users contact the company are to ask questions about their bills, to order new hardware or ask about when new iPhones are coming out and to change their pricing plans. Tech support calls rank fourth, though most of the issues have to do with reception problems.

"In general, a call to our hotline takes between one to two minutes," Hoepken said. "Approximately two-thirds of the cases will be resolved in the first call."

He stresses that the new peer-to-peer support platform isn't about Vodafone shirking its customer support responsibilities - the company supports hundreds of devices in its stores and over the phone, Hoepken noted. But when Mila pitched its offering to Vodafone - after a successful rollout in Switzerland with mobile provider Swisscom - Vodafone execs were curious.

"We were seeing that, especially with issues like extending digital receivers beyond more than one room, people would have the directions on how to do it, buy all the appropriate tech products, but still get stuck," Hoepken explained. "While you may buy these products from a provider, it's not necessarily their responsibility to put it together or set it up for you. But often any negativity that consumers feel toward setting it up gets blamed on the brand. So Vodafone Service Friends is a way to address this."

German charities have long offered programs to help get seniors online and into the world of current technology. But this service offering is a new iteration of the peer-to-peer service model. That it has been back by one of the world's largest phone companies shows that the industry is beginning to consider alternative ways of offering customer support. It's unclear however whether the other German phone providers like Deutsche Telekom or O2 plan to follow suit with similar programs.

For Schultze, in any case, the program is an easy way for young people like him to earn extra money and offer their expertise to less tech savvy people who need it.

"I was helping my grandparents and friends for free with their tech issues," Schultze noted. "Obviously there was demand. So it made sense to figure out a way to make money doing this."

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