Germany, the country that brought us intricate trash-sorting and car-sharing programs featuring slick BMWs, has a new innovation: peer-to-peer tech support. The program, launched this autumn by mobile phone provider Vodafone, basically aims to give less savvy users access to cost-effective tech help delivered right to their doors in the form of other users. Remember that time your mom called you and asked, “How do I transfer my photos from the iPhone to my computer?” Now, instead of calling you, Vodafone will refer her to somebody else’s tech-savvy kid for support.
The platform is called “Vodafone Service Friends” and it’s designed to both help customers and shift work away from Vodafone store reps. Nearly all of the tech support members currently signed up are teens or people in their 20s. The idea, says Anastasia Albert of Mila.com—a Berlin-based startup similar to Angie’s List that’s running the program for Vodafone and charging its users for the service—is to offer support for a price of 10 to 25 euros an hour delivered right to users’s doors.
“I think of it this way,” Albert said. “If you buy a table from IKEA, you generally have to assemble it yourself. But with home entertainment systems, DSL setup, and especially mobile devices, customers go back into Vodafone stores for help—both for devices they have from Vodafone and from other companies. And that becomes really expensive for the provider.”
The program is in its infancy—if the test rollout in Berlin proves a success, it will be launched nationally, Albert said. To see how it works, I booked an hour with Philipp Schultze, one of the 63 tech support providers in the pilot. The process was pretty simple: I entered my zip code into Mila’s website and Schultze was the first person to show up on the list. We exchanged about four messages though Mila’s internal chat portal and agreed that he would meet me at 5 p.m. at a café in my neighborhood for one hour. His hourly rate was already set, so I knew from the outset what his services would cost.
Schultze is an 18-year-old Berliner spending his gap year volunteering in a hospital. Like all of the Vodafone Service Friends, he was vetted by Vodafone and selected from a pool of the company’s younger customers. “I basically just got an email invitation from Vodafone,” he explained while seated across from me at a café where my various repair-ready devices sat on the table between us. Then he added with a laugh, “Maybe Vodafone could see from my Google searches on my phone that I am always reading about tech support.”
Schultze is Vodafone-approved to support Android devices and set up home entertainment systems. He and the other Vodafone Service Friends are more like highly skilled geeks than support staff trained by the company. In fact, they are not trained at all. Vodafone puts new recruits through an online test to gauge their level of expertise, but they don’t offer any kind of customer service training before setting them out into the world to handle customers like me. Of course, there is an incentive to do a good job: If they don’t solve a customer’s problem, they don’t get paid.
I was open to trying out this new approach because I haven’t always felt comfortable in cellphone stores. Handing over my phone to tech support people at Verizon or AT&T—or leaving my Macbook to be serviced at the Apple Store for that matter—can feel like I’m giving a complete stranger carte blanche access to my most intimate digital doings, to the data that increasingly defines me, and who I am. When you ask for tech support help, you are essentially giving people who know vastly more about your device than you do, the ability look at anything they want. I know companies say they have policies governing this, but who is really monitoring the person servicing your old iPhone 4S when you’re killing time playing with a new iPhone 6 on the other side of the store?
So when I handed Schultze my Sony Xperia Z2, and I got to sit next to him and monitor his actions, it felt good. I felt empowered.
First we got down to a question that parents and grandparents all around the U.S. have asked their kids and grandkids a million times over: How do I copy the photos on my phone to my computer? To make it even more challenging (I thought), I brought along my Macbook and told Schultze that I wanted him to find a way to get the Apple OS X to recognize the Android device plugged into it through the USB cable without installing Google’s Android File Transfer utility. I thought it would be a challenge, but Schultze was unimpressed.
“Simple,” he said. “You have to use Bluetooth.”
Within moments, Schultze had copied most of photos on the device to a folder on the Mac desktop. Though, as he correctly noted, this wasn’t the best way to go about it.
“It would be easier—and a lot faster—just to install the plugin,” he explained.
The other question I had for him was thornier: I had somehow managed to log myself out of the Google Play store; when I tried to log in again, I couldn’t. This meant that, when I tried to download Skype, I could only get so far as the login for the Google Play store. I’d enter my credentials, but the site would time out. Why, I asked?
He picked up the device off the standing coffee bar table, turned it off, turned it on again, and then loaded the Skype download screen.
“Enter your password again,” he said, handing the phone back to me.
I did as instructed, and then handed the phone back to him. He pressed the blue “sign in” button and—again—the phone timed out.
He proceeded to toggle through the settings menu and then he suddenly said “Ah ha!”
“Have you ever updated the operating system on this phone?” he asked.
I had not. He flicked down the “update operating system” tab, downloaded and installed the updates, and within a minute, was able to hand me back the phone, and instruct me again to enter the password. I did as much, and then pressed the blue “sign in” button myself. And then downloading began.
“See, it works now,” he said, grinning.
So Schultze had indeed worked me through my problems, and in a way that perhaps I could reproduce in the future should I run into something similar again. “It’s about showing people how to do it once, then they get it,” Schultze noted. “These kinds of things aren’t intuitive.”
But as nettlesome as these tech support issues can be, they aren’t the main reason that people contact their mobile phone providers. Thorsten Hoepken, a Vodafone spokesman, said that, actually, the top three reasons that users contact his company are to ask questions about their bills, to order new hardware (most people are asking about iPhones), or to change their pricing plans. Tech support calls rank fourth—and in that case, Hoepken said, the bulk of the problems have to do with poor reception.
“In general, a call at our hotline takes between one to two minutes,” Hoepken said. “Approximately two-thirds of the cases will be solved in the first call.”
He stresses that the new peer-to-peer support platform isn’t about Vodafone shirking its customer support responsibilities—the company supports hundreds of devices in its stores and over the phone. But when Mila pitched its offering to Vodafone—after a successful rollout in Switzerland with mobile provider Swisscom—Vodafone execs were curious.
“We were seeing that, especially with issues like extending digital receivers beyond more than one room, people would have the directions on how to do it, buy all the appropriate tech products, but still get stuck,” Hoepken explained. “While you may buy these products from a provider, it’s not necessarily their responsibility to put it together or set it up for you. But often any negativity that consumers feel toward setting it up gets blamed on the brand. So Vodafone Service Friends is a way to address this.”
In the U.S., spokespeople for AT&T and T-Mobile told me they don’t have plans to offer a service like Vodafone Service Friends yet. And there are hurdles to making something like this sustainable and safe for users. You’re still letting some contractor into your home and giving them access to your computer. The fact that the Service Friends are hand-picked Vodafone customers means that the company has their bank details, addresses, and GPS location data certainly provides some disincentive to committing illicit activity, but doesn’t entirely rule out shady characters making off with your information.
But when it comes to tricky issues of tech setups and glitchy computers, it can really help to have a human walk you through the problem. Computerized services and even phone help lines still can’t quite replace an in-person session.
For Philipp Schultze, the program is an easy way for young people like himself to earn extra money and offer their expertise to less tech-savvy people who need it.
“I was helping my grandparents and friends for free with their tech issues,” Schultze noted. “Obviously there was demand. So it made sense to figure out a way to make money doing this.”