About a year ago, Thor Muller, Amy Muller, and Lane Becker were running a company called Valleyschwag, a swag-of-the-month club that offered the latest in t-shirts, baseball caps, key chains, and other Silicon Valley promotional giveaways to subscribers around the world.

They handled customer questions and complaints themselves, via email. 'We had several thousand customers and we spent most of our time responding to their issues, most of which were repetitive,' Thor Muller says. 'We didn't have enough hours in the day.'

Meanwhile, the partners noticed an interesting phenomenon. 'In the comment section of our blog, customers began to help other customers,' Muller says. Sometimes the comments related to the original post -- for instance, to ask a question about a new feature announced in the blog. Other times, customers would pose questions about sizing, shipping times, or other issues as comments to a blog post on a completely different topic.

And these questions were getting answers. 'They were responding faster than we were,' Muller says.

'There were two completely different channels for customer communications,' Becker notes. 'One was the email approach, which was company-run and inefficient. The other was the blog comments, which was customer-run and amazingly efficient.'

Faster, cheaper, better

The partners had inadvertently discovered the power of online community as a means of providing customer service. The fact is, providing an environment where customers answer each others' questions can be much more effective than simply providing the answers yourself. For one thing, few companies can afford to hire (or outsource) the number of customer service reps needed to give helpful responses quickly to every customer who needs them. Second, as Becker and Muller saw, customers often respond to each other faster than customer service reps can. And third, the answers customers give each other are often better than answers from company staff. For instance, Muller says, Valleyschwag customers provided each other better help with the subtleties of picking the right t-shirt size than they themselves could have.

Creating a customer-service community can help your customers be more engaged with both your product and your company, says Sean O'Driscoll, general manager, community support services, customer service, and support at Microsoft. 'How do you get users to want to stay at your site and engage with others? The only way is peer-to-peer discussion, in their own voices, rather than the company's voice,' he says.

O'Driscoll recommends giving customers a means to identify the most useful answers to their questions, and having those answers come up first in response to a question or search. He also recommends identifying and rewarding what is usually a core group of customers who consistently provide those answers.

Culture of trust

It's also important to create an atmosphere where customers want to help each other, notes Craig Newmark, customer service rep and founder of Craigslist.org. 'It begins with treating customers the way you'd like to be treated, taking customer service seriously and following through,' he says. 'The way we run our site encourages people to give each other a break because of that culture of trust.'

Whatever you do, don't try to edit or otherwise control what customers say about your product or company. This may require a mental leap, O'Driscoll notes. 'I spent my whole career being told to manage the brand, control the brand,' he says. 'The emergence of citizen markets means I can't control the brand anymore.'

Which brings us back to the former Valleyschwag partners. Ready to move on from that venture ('You have to really love shipping,' Becker says) they used their customer service experience to launch a customer service site, as Muller puts it, 'revolving around customers rather than companies.'

The service, named Satisfaction, is built on a simple concept: Anyone, whether customer or company representative, can start a conversation about any product or service and anyone else can join in. Some companies stay out of these conversations (though their employees may offer non-officially-sanctioned comments). Others see them as a resource, including the messenger bag company Timbuk2, which offers a link to Satisfaction's 'People-Powered Customer Service' from its site.

Ultimately, Muller says, customers can help each other with or without a company's blessing. 'Companies large or small have thought they could send out messages and people would passively receive them, but it doesn't work that way,' he says. 'Whether or not you decide to embrace that conversation within your own sphere doesn't matter --because it will be happening somewhere.'