Microsoft launched a pilot test program for an online tech-support forum that will be staffed by paid "independent experts."
News of the pilot was first reported by Manan Kakkar, a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) and blogger, who noted that the pilot is for a site currently known as "TechSupport Marketplace." TechSupport Marketplace is a new Microsoft site that will bring together "Customers who are having a problem and independent Experts with the skills and ability to troubleshoot and help resolve those problems. In return for helping Customers with their computer problems in a one on one manner, the Experts earn some money directly from the Customer they are helping," according to an e-mail message about the program cited by Kakkar.
The new TechSupport Marketplace site seems to be an outgrowth of the current Microsoft Answers forum -- and one designed to provide answers and help when customers need a deeper level of expertise or attention than what is currently available via the existing online forums.
Individuals with tech questions will submit queries on the new site and pre-selected members of the expert community will be able to bid on providing support and answers to those queries. Questioners will be able to specify whether they need an answer within a defined windows of time. Customers will pay via PayPal or some kind of similar mechanism.
According to Kakkar's information, Microsoft won't be charging the "experts" any kind of fee to broker the interaction between them and customers. The goal of the new site will be to reduce support costs so much that "customers will get even small problems fixed," according to an excerpt of a Microsoft e-mail message provided by Kakkar.
The current Microsoft Answers forum provides information about Windows, Windows Live and Microsoft Security Essentials topics for free to users who submit queries via the Web site. Microsoft launched the Answers site in beta in December, 2008, and initially focused on providing help with Vista questions.
In the open-source world, there is a TechSupport Marketplace available via SourceForge. But the SourceForge Marketplace seems to be a site that allows consultants and service providers to list their services and support offerings for specific open-source projects, more than it is a place for users to get general technical help.
No word so far on how long the pilot will last or when the final site will launch. I've asked Microsoft for more specifics about the TechSupport Marketplace pilot and plans. I'll update this post if and when I receive more information.
Update (December 19): Here are a few more specifics from a Microsoft spokesperson about the new program:
1. How long has this pilot program existed? The TechSupport Marketplace is a new pilot program that launched on December 17, 2009 in English. It will run in a limited fashion for a few months in order for Microsoft to gather input from customers and experts.
2. Who is invited into the pilot at this point? Initially, people who visit the Windows XP and Windows Vista forums “Ask a Question” page on Microsoft Answers may be invited to participate. The pilot is obviously limited in scale and Experts who help the customers have been selected by Microsoft especially for this pilot.
3. When will this site/service launch? We anticipate the pilot will conclude in Spring 2010. There are no firm launch plans or date in place at this time.
4. What kinds of fees will be charged? During the pilot phase, those who are invited to participate will receive Expert help for free. The pilot will ask customers for feedback on the value of the service.
5. How will Microsoft staff it? And make sure the folks are qualified to provide answers? During the pilot phase, a staff of professional Experts selected by Microsoft will help customers. The support service will be available during business hours, 7:00 am – 5:00 pm PT.
6. Will this be a complement to Microsoft Answers? Any relation to it? What topic areas will TechSupport Marketplace cover that Answers doesn’t? TechSupport Marketplace will complement Microsoft Answers by giving customers greater choice in the type of support experience they want. It will provide access to a more personalized experience and expedited response time if the customer wants it. Microsoft’s support assets are interrelated and draw on shared resources. We envision that this new support asset will gain its own identity and serve those looking for something between the Microsoft Answers free and unmanaged forum and more formal Microsoft Support.