The virtual world could become the first point of contact between companies and customers and could transform the whole experience
Web 2.0 is still the hottest buzzword in tech circles, with every big brand worth its salt rushing to open a headquarters in Second Life or build its own MySpace page. But beyond showing off some fancy programming, a handful of companies are already looking at the latest wave of technologies to explore whether user-generated content could be the next frontier in customer service.
Since it began hosting the likes of Adidas, Dell, Reuters and Toyota, Second Life has become technology's equivalent of India or China - everyone needs an office and a strategy involving it to keep their shareholders happy. But beyond opening a shiny new building in the virtual world, what can such companies do with their remote real estate?
Rather than a simple showcase, some believe Second Life could one day become a first point of contact for customers.
Like many other big brands, PA Consulting has its own offices in Second Life and has learnt that simply having an office to answer customer queries is not enough. Real people, albeit behind avatars, must be staffing the offices - in the same way having a website is not enough if there isn't a call centre to back it up when a would-be customer wants to speak to a human being. In future, the consultants believe call centres could one day ask customers to follow up a phone call with them by moving the query into a virtual world.
And hanging around in Second Life is more fun than being stuck on hold. As Claus Nehmzow, member of PA Consulting's management team points out: "The waiting period can be so much more entertaining than with an IVR system".
Instead of being placed in a queue to enjoy hold 'muzak' when contacting a call centre, virtual world visitors could make more profitable use of their time - talking to other inhabitants, viewing videos, reading information in the environment for example.
As well as keeping visitors entertained, exploring virtual world customer service can have advantages for the company themselves.
By using avatars, for example, a whole new customer services workforce can be opened up - those who need to work from home or mothers with young children for example, can be brought back into the virtual workforce. It can also remove some of the issues with customers being prejudiced against call centre workers who have certain accents.
However, currently Second Life and its imitators remain relatively niche in usage terms and have their own technology boundaries - not all consumers, particularly the older community, have the tech savvy or indeed the hardware necessary to make use of virtual worlds.
It may yet be some time before these cyber worlds come into their own - yet other web 2.0 technologies may offer another route for companies to make conversations with their customers easier.
Clive Longbottom, of analyst house Quocirca, believes the relatively low penetration rates and end user technical constraints will keep virtual worlds as a relatively niche customer service tool: "It's a new environment, there's a lot of interest... but it's not growing rapidly, it's not a major area."
He added that more established web 2.0 favourites such as YouTube might be able to play a better part in resolving customer queries. Examples might be electronics vendors posting a software demo or a video of how to set up a tricky audio system.
Some companies have already cottoned on to the potential of user-generated content and have begun milking users for their expertise in problem solving - Sony is one, having recently got users to help solve glitches after the recent launch of the PS3. Sony has built customer self-service forums using Transversal software to allow the PS3-puzzled to query each other.
Andy Barker, director of customer cervices for Sony UK, told silicon.com the hardware maker will be relying on PS3 fans to help each other out, although the forums will have some Sony brains on hand too.
Barker told silicon.com: "We can't know how every single device works with the PS3 but users could have some experience of it. If someone suggested they put the PS3 in a slow cooker, we'd step in and moderate that. There will also be classic moderating if someone posts an offensive comment or a dodgy link."
Sony recently opened its own virtual world, Sony@home, and is looking into the possibility of exploiting it for customer service purposes, perhaps using it to one day give users graphical walkthroughs if they need customer support. Barker said: "It's a question of seeing if people like it and if it's something they use but that's looking a bit further in the future."
Meanwhile, others are exploring how user-generated content from mobile phones can be used for customer service purposes.
In Accenture's US labs, some researchers are already working on how customers and companies can make each other's lives easier by means of the humble cameraphone. The consultants have already explored how snap-happy citizens can use their phones to take photos of minor crimes such as fly-tipping or graffiti and MMS them to the police.
Andy Fano, global director of research, Accenture Technology Labs, told silicon.com the system has to-date just been piloted in the US. He added: "We came from the position that it would only be a matter of time until people captured an event on their phones, and wanted to send it to the police, who wouldn't be able to receive it."
Insurance companies could also make use of the feature-stuffed mobile - after a disaster, homeowners could take pictures of their homes as primary assessment of damage and help insurance agents and emergency services determine who needs help first.
With the addition of image recognition tech, the capacities of mobiles could be extended. Consumers could take pictures of a broken car part, for instance, and text it to the manufacturer to request a replacement.
However, with a brave new world of new media customer services, call centres will need an overhaul. Fano said: "By necessity, it will take more people to interpret all of this but given the potential mass of media coming in, we have to find a scaleable way to approach this."