Part 7 of the Social Business For Real Work series.
The principle of creating a customer community to provide product support is well established, and most companies have some form of community now. But the quality and vibrancy of these communities is highly variable, and many suffer from being seemingly disconnected from the main customer service operation.
The Social Business Advantage
Many of the advantages of a good customer community are widely understood these days. Peer-to-peer support, where customers help each other, often delivers faster and more detailed assistance than a customer service team could offer. A vibrant, open customer community is a valuable product advertisement, demonstrating that the customer will be well-supported after purchase.
The communities should be closely integrated both with existing customer service systems (e.g. CRM) and with internal-facing employee social networks in order to allow discussion of more complex issues to pass seamlessly between participants both inside and outside the company. Private issues that have been mistakenly reported into the community can be quickly moved to CRM systems. And conversely, repeated reports of the same problem via CRM can be contributed to the community knowledge base.
Petra is the customer service lead for Mobile1to1’s mPhone 5 product, and manager of the customer community for this product. This is a public community that has been running since the product’s release a year ago. Over this time the community has built up into a valuable knowledge base for product users, with contributions from both customer service staff, and users of the product. As this is an established community, Petra’s main role is performing a little light-touch moderation to keep the community on-topic, and identifying customer-specific issues which should be redirected towards traditional CRM channels. The CRM system is accessible alongside the community discussions, making it easy for members of the community to see both at the same time.
Paul was an early mPhone 5 customer and is very active on the forums, guiding new users towards help already contributed by the community. Mobile1to1 recognise the contribution Paul makes to the community, and have invited him and a few other “community champions” to special product feedback events at their headquarters in San Francisco.
Brenda is the customer service lead for Mobile1to1’s new developer program. She creates an external community for members of the program and sends invitations to those who have enrolled in the program. As this is a new community, Brenda has to contribute a lot more in the first instance to seed the discussion and establish it as the definitive place to get questions answered.
Make It Real
- Consider whether to host public customer communities in a hybrid internal/external network, or whether to establish a separate network solely for external communities. The correct configuration depends on the company, but is typically driven by the number of customers you would expect to host in public communities. If there are a large number of these, then a separate public network makes sense (Clearvale enables separate internal and external networks to be integrated as part of a social ecosystem). If the number of customers is relatively small, or if the communities are mostly invitation-only (like the developer program example), it is probably easier to host them on a hybrid network.
- Articulate a clear policy for company involvement in the customer community, and ensure that this policy is followed. This sounds obvious, but many companies fail to do what they say they will, or fail to even explain their intended level of engagement. Some companies are very active in their customer community; others are almost entirely invisible, although this is far less acceptable to customers these days.
- Identify and reward top customer contributors. The nature of the reward will vary depending on the context, and may be as simple as recognition in the community or may involve early access to products, access to product managers, or even some financial reward.
- Establish community behaviour guidelines and moderate discussion with care. The community is clearly far more valuable for everyone if it stays polite and on-topic. But preventing or deleting any sort of dissent angers customers immensely and is likely to drive members to other, less regulated, less constructive parts of the internet.
- Use social media presence to guide customers towards the public communities, as these provide a much better environment than Facebook, Twitter, etc for resolving all but the simplest questions.