How Customer Participation in B2B Peer-to-Peer Problem Solving Communities Influences the Need for Traditional Customer Service


Can peer-to-peer interactions in a customer support community reduce the need for one-on-one traditional customer support service? New research sponsored by Arizona State’s Center for Services Leadership and published in the Journal of Service Research (JSR) attempts to address this question. Firms that leverage the collective wisdom and knowledge in their customer communities quickly see how promoting peer-to-peer problem-solving can result in greater operational efficiencies – ultimately driving financial outcomes for the firm.

Providing fast and helpful customer support service is critical for all service firms. To address customer problems, firms offer a range of support services providing customer help needed before, during, and after purchase. For business-to-business (B2B) relationships, many companies are increasingly turning to firm hosted collaborative technologies, like virtual peer-to-peer problem solving (P3) communities, to fulfill some of their customer service needs. For many years, the traditional outlet for support or problem solving has been this one-to-one customer support model in which the customer calls a customer service agent to solve a problem or answer a question.

Technological advances have enabled firms to expand their one-on-one support models to use call centers, email, and web-based support. These support models are expensive for the both the firm and customer. Repetitive costs, suppressed knowledge sharing across customer and service representatives, and the delayed resolution for other customers, are some of the limitations with support models. In response to these shortcomings, many firms are turning to firm-hosted collaborative and interactive P3 communities to fulfill the demand for customer service support. As noted by Kristal Ray, Professor at Utah State and one of the authors of the study, “ROI is always an important consideration for technology implementations. By offering the opportunity to lower service costs, social community interactions can provide the economic justification for these investments.”

Our research team used longitudinal clickstream and service support behavioral data from 2,542 B2B customers of a Fortune 100 technology firm to test the effect of customer P3 community (posting questions and responding to others), static knowledge search behavior, community log-in frequency, and the breadth of community membership on the customer’s future use of traditional customer support service.

We found that, problem solving activities of helping oneself (posting questions) and helping others (responding to questions) in a peer-to-peer problem solving community were significant predictors and primary drivers of reducing the customer’s use of traditional customer support service, even after controlling for past traditional support usage behavior and community expertise. Our findings demonstrate that virtual peer-to-peer problem-solving communities not only save the firm resources but also give key customers access to timely problem solving information in a manner not previously possible.

While not as large of an effect, the study shows that customer knowledge searching behavior in “static” knowledge management repositories also reduced the use of traditional customer support service. On the other hand, we found that posting questions and using static knowledge is not always better as when customers combined these behaviors their need for traditional customer support increased. Also the more frequently the customers logged into the community and the larger the number of individual product- or service-specific communities they were members in, the greater was their need for traditional customer support service. The findings suggest that such behaviors, e.g., membership in many communities, use of multiple sources to attempt to solve a problem, or logging in to the community more frequently, may be indicative of an individual customer having difficulty solving a problem, or experiencing role overload.

Our research offers new insights for managers aiming to promote increased problem solving activities among their customers in P3 communities. The research results discussed in the JSRarticle demonstrate how managers can identify the appropriate combination of customer community participation and static knowledge creation to leverage the efficiencies of a support service community. These efficiencies can reduce the need for traditional support that results in reduced support costs and enables support resources to focus on higher value activities.Gaining insight into the types of interactions in the community that are specifically reducing traditional support service can be leveraged to improve the customer problem solving experience. Community specific knowledge can also be utilized as the basis for static knowledge generation to create impactful static knowledge resources that could extend the service request reduction effect. Finally, the study highlights the need for proper training to increase both the efficiency and effectiveness in navigating and using the community. To quote Katherine Lemon, Professor at Boston College and a co-author of the article, “our findings highlight the exciting opportunities firms have to harness customer knowledge, customer community and customer insights to solve other customers’ problems more efficiently and effectively – clearly a win-win for the firm and its customers.”


Sterling A. Bone is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University and serves on the Arizona State University Center for Services Leadership research faculty network.  His research has appeared in notable business journals and has been covered by business press including the Washington Post, Business Week, and Market Watch. 

The article How Customer Participation in B2B Peer-to-Peer Problem-Solving Communities Influences the Need for Traditional Customer Service featured in the post was co-authored by Sterling A. Bone, Utah State University, Paul W. Fombelle, Northeastern University, Kristal R. Ray, Utah State University, Katherine N. Lemon, Boston College. It is available ahead of print at Journal of Service Research website. Journal of Service Research is the world’s leading service research journal that features articles by service experts from both academia and business world. 

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