The Search For Psychic Income

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Supporting customers is quite a burden for companies. Call centers, as an example, cost companies billions of dollars to operate. In an attempt to reduce customer support expenditures, companies turned to two alternatives. Firstly, in the late 1990s, companies starting using their Web sites as sources of information for their customers. This trend was coined as the self-service resolution, “in which companies put massive amounts of information online and encouraged customers to use it” (Li & Bernoff, 2011, p. 158). The second option for companies was to outsource their support calls overseas. This tactic has saved companies quite a bit of money as “compensation for overseas telephone staff runs about 40 percent lower than the same staff in the United States” (Li & Bernoff, 2011, p. 158). Despite the money saved, customers were dissatisfied with this level of service and decided to turn to a new source of information: each other. 

Why People Help One Another

Surprisingly, people are willing to spend lots of time helping one another online – even complete strangers! One of the main reasons is “people are far more willing to trust each other than a company” (Li & Bernoff, 2011, p. 158). The drive to help one another can be seen throughout the groundswell and has been called the culture of generosity or the search for psychic income (Li & Bernoff, 2011). People participate in this groundswell support system for many reasons including gratitude, recognition, influence and even an avenue in which to support passions. Ultimately, “psychic income is free—it’s paid in love, not money” (Li & Bernoff, 2011, 161). So as a business, how do you benefit from your customers’ desires for psychic income? Simply put, you save money. By enabling your customers to connect with one another, it makes life easier for them as well as for your company.

How to Benefit From Psychic Income

There are several ways companies can benefit from the groundswell’s desire for psychic income. One way is to create a community where your customers can connect and support one another. This can be done through community forums like Massachusetts General Hospital’s CarePages and Dell’s support forums. Another way is to inspire your customers to build something together. This can be achieved through a wiki and a topic that engages your customers. As long as you have a pool of content to pull from and customers who have a common interest in contributing, a wiki can be a great support solution for your company. An example of this is BearingPoint’s MIKE2.0 wiki. Lastly, question and answer support communities have proven to be effective with companies like Yahoo! and Naver, which have both driven “significant profits from helping the groundswell answer its own questions” (Li & Bernoff, 2011, p. 170).

Advice For Getting Started

Before tapping into the groundswell’s search for psychic income, it is important to assess your company’s goals to ensure they align with this type of strategy. Examining areas like what problems will be solved, how to participate, and whether to create a community or join an existing one, will determine the right way forward. If it is determined that building a support community would be beneficial, here is some advice from authors Li and Bernoff for getting started:

  • Start small, but plan for a larger presence
  • Reach out to your most active customers
  • Plan to drive traffic to your community
  • Build in a reputation system (allowing participants to build up their own reputations)
  • Let your customers lead you (collect feedback)

In conclusion, by owning or participating in a community, you receive access to a great opportunity. This opportunity involves the rich content that is being created within your community. The dialogue generated between your customers can influence marketing and development processes, which in turn, can lead to the creation of better products. This is the power of psychic income.


Li, C., & Bernoff, J. (2011). Groundswell: Winning in a world transformed by social technologies. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.



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