As we head into Easter holiday weekend, one thing most of us are likely to experience is crowds, whether it is on the motorway, at the airport or the supermarket.

The sight of a heaving mass of strangers between you and where you want to get to is generally a source of great frustration but smart players in customer service have come to regard crowds in an altogether more favourable light, as sources of help, expertise and support.

The concept of the crowd as a new and powerful dimension in customer service is attracting increasing attention. Why? On one level, in an economic environment where customer service teams are continually charged with doing more for less, tapping a free source of peer-to-peer support from fellow customers has considerable appeal.

Crowd-sourced customer help has been described as ‘Wikipedia with everything’ and the proliferation of social media networks has certainly made it easier to create and manage customer community forums. As a result, they have grown in influence and scale since Wikipedia was founded in 2001 as an online encyclopedia, by the people for the people.

One of the tenets behind the concept of crowd-sourced customer support is a belief that the crowd collectively possesses more wisdom than an individual.  Attempts to prove the theory of ‘crowd wisdom’ date back to 1906 when a crowd at a village fete was asked to guess the weight of a slaughtered cow -  no individual guessed the precise weight, but when all answers were averaged, the result was astonishingly close to the actual weight.

More recently, Professor Marcus du Sautoy - asked 160 people to guess the number of jelly beans in a large jar. Answers ranged from 400 to 50,000 - like the cow, no-one got it exactly right but the average answer was correct to within four jelly beans. The accuracy of the group was once more proven to be greater than the individual - demonstrating the wisdom of the crowd.

I am not suggesting that on the basis of the jelly bean test, all organisations should cede responsibility for customer support to an amorphous crowd,  not least for fear of litigation. However diverse organisations have demonstrated that it is possible to strike a balance -  overseeing, engaging with and monitoring customer forums in a way that enables the forum to flourish, harnesses and archives the best responses and solutions it generates, and reaps benefits for both the organisation and its customers.

New entrant businesses such as mobile phone company giffgaff, which are unencumbered by legacy systems, have been in the vanguard of using crowd-sourced customer support as an agile and cost-effective service model.

However more established businesses including IBM, BT, Hewlett Packard, Sony and LEGO have also successfully embraced customer community forums, both for customer service issues but also more broadly for example for input on new products. (BT reckons that one avid customer support forum member willingly contributes the equivalent of thousands of pounds worth of consultancy advice for free every year.)

In an age when customer service agents are expected to know more and more about increasingly diverse and complex goods and services, the beauty of crowd-sourced customer help is that it constitutes a deeper reservoir of knowledge and expertise.

The best forums operate as an extended collaborative workforce. Of course, dealing with them effectively and integrating them into a rounded, reliable and robust customer service operation is not without its challenges - however the upside can be significant.

We could have a little fun testing out the wisdom of the crowd with our own version of the ‘jelly bean’ experiment... How about we start by guessing how many chocolate eggs will be consumed in the UK this Easter?

Wishing you all a happy Easter.