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Mila sees big firms using web to outsource customer support

By Caroline Copley

ZURICH (Reuters) - Mila, a Swiss peer-to-peer online marketplace for services ranging from IT support to furniture assembly, expects big European firms to turn to such platforms as a cheap way to improve their customer care.

Austere times and cheap mobile technology have helped kickstart the so-called sharing economy, in which individuals rent out their time and expertise - from lending power tools to making their cars available for hire.

The idea has spawned a slew of fast-growing startups, including online home rental market place Airbnb and peer-to-peer online platforms Mila and TaskRabit, which vet and match those who are offering services with those who need them.

It is also beginning to pique the interest of big business.

Mila has, for example, struck a partnership with Swisscom to help the telecom provider's customers hire a local "geek next door" to solve IT problems rather than calling on the services of a Swisscom technician.

Since the pilot launched in Zurich in November, hundreds of members of the public have signed up to become "Swisscom Friends" ranging from tech-savvy students and the unemployed to IT professionals who want to make extra cash.

Swisscom vets these freelance tech workers, but does not pay them. They are paid by the customers who hire them - with Mila taking a commission, of course.

"Many firms are having to reduce costs but at the same time have more complexity in support or service areas," Mila Chief Executive Manuel Grenacher told Reuters in an interview. "With a sharing approach, they can offer a nationwide service."

Swisscom, which would need a far larger workforce if it was to provide a local, out-of-hours service, said there had been 450 customer requests to use the Friends service since November.

Lukas Peter, the company's innovation manager, said Swisscom's primary motivation was to improve its customer service, but he acknowledged the service may help it cut costs.

'GEEK NEXT DOOR'

"When a customer rings us up and wants to know how to record something on the TV it can sometimes take a long time to just explain where the right button is on the remote control," he said. "We want to be able to offer our customers a 'geek next door' that can come round."

Grenacher said Mila, a Zurich-based startup founded in 2013, would also launch two large pilot projects to provide peer-to-peer customer support in Germany this year, one with a big furniture store and the other with an insurance company. He said he was not yet authorized to name the firms.

Partnering with a well-known brand, like Swisscom, helps build trust among consumers who at first may be reluctant to let a stranger into their home, he said.

As large companies lay off workers due to margin pressures, Grenacher sees peer-to-peer service platforms picking up some of the slack by allowing out-of-work individuals to advertise their skills available for hire.

"By supporting this sharing economy concept, big companies are bringing work back into the market place," he said.

Peer-to-peer rental of goods is already a $26 billion industry, according to estimates by Rachel Botsman, author of "What's Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption".

Last year, car hire firm Avis bought car sharing firm Zipcar, while General Motors has teamed up with RelayRides. In Europe, German carmaker BMW owns a stake in British firm parkatmyhouse.com, a platform that helps homeowners make money from unused parking spaces.

But Grenacher believes the sharing of services has even bigger potential: "Not everyone has a car, but everyone has at least some talent."

(Editing by Pravin Char)

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