Companies can no longer get by on the strength of their products alone. These days, the quality of their service is as important as the quality of the product. But companies have wildly divergent methods for dealing with their customers: Some outsource their customer service entirely to call centers, while others create separate teams internally to handle all customer inquiries. And then there are companies that fold service into every employee’s job description.

Intuit, makers of popular financial and tax prep software, takes that all-hands-on-deck approach with its TurboTax team through a program called Lifeline. During peak tax times — typically at the end of January, when most people receive their W2 and rush to file for refunds, and the week preceding dreaded Tax Day — customer service becomes the responsibility of every employee, from the CEO on down.

Lifeline emerged out of a program Intuit launched four or five years ago called TurboTax Live Community, essentially a customer community embedded in every page of TurboTax online. The company struggled to deal with the volume of customer questions, partly because many employees just didn’t think customer service was part of their job description.

“There’s been a journey of how to get more employees, who have all of this deep knowledge, getting answers out to customers,” Christine Morrison, social media senior manager at Intuit, told the SmartVan.

The company created Lifeline to connect customers with TurboTax employees, many of whom had actually built the products customers called with questions about. During the two peak tax times, all of TurboTax’s 700 employees gather in the cafeteria and, in shifts, take turns answering the deluge of questions — about 40,000 of them last year, according to Morrison — that come pouring in through social media, Live Community (the company’s online customer community), and, occasionally, the phone. Intuit’s CEO, Brad Smith, flies down from the Bay Area with the entire senior team to take part.

The benefits of having the employees who build the products respond directly to customer questions are two-fold. Customers get informed answers from knowledgeable employees, and employees get immediate feedback on how customers are struggling with the products they’ve built. The customers are happier, and engineers can head off larger problems down the road.

“[Employees] are getting a front seat to what the problems are in their area,” Morrison says. “They know because they’re answering the questions directly. A natural byproduct is that people get really close to what the customer pain points are.”

Intuit has a separate program, Inner Circle, aimed at tapping into customer feedback. Inner Circle consists of about 10,000 customers who sign up to give year-round feedback about problems they’re having with TurboTax software, or suggestions for features that don’t yet exist. That feedback is filtered to TurboTax engineers and product managers.

Customers aren’t paid. Instead, Morrison, who founded the program, said customers get satisfaction out of getting the attention of a huge company. She describes the customers in Intuit’s Inner Circle as “people who are used to being heard in other ways, but not so much by big business. When we started the Inner Circle, I noticed we had a lot of judges in there, just a lot of people who are used to being heard.”

And that’s modern customer service at its most basic: With the ubiquity of social media, customers expect to be heard and to have their questions answered, no matter how big and bureaucratic a company may be. A personal touch in customer service can certainly go a long way.

More: Customer Service Is a Marketing Investment, Not an Expense.

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