The Customer Community

Part 7 of the Social Business For Real Work series.

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The Challenge

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.

Example

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.

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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.

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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.

Delivering and Discussing an RFP Response

Part 6 of the Social Business For Real Work series

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(see also the previous article in the series, “Managing an RFP Response“)

The Challenge

These days, responses to requests for proposals (RFPs) are increasingly large and sophisticated, often consisting of a wide range of rich media. This makes traditional delivery mechanisms such as email and hard-copy more and more inappropriate. And the process of the recipient requesting clarification from the vendor is typically slow and inefficient, involving several people from each side communicating via single points of contact in order to maintain an audit trail of discussions.

The Social Business Advantage

A private community in an enterprise social network is an ideal way for a vendor to present their response to a prospective customer’s requirements. It enables the detailed textual response to the RFP to be presented alongside supporting rich media such as videos and presentations. It allows the vendor to present the team working with the prospect, and to establish broader lines of communication between the vendor and buyer. By focusing all communication in a single place, it makes it easier for new additions to the vendor or customer’s teams to catch up quickly, and provides a ready-made audit trail of post-response discussions and clarifications.

Example

The Mobile1to1 social network is a Clearvale “hybrid network” enabling both internal and external communities to be securely hosted in the same environment. Brad has worked with others in the company to prepare a response to an RFP from UKTechCo (see previous article). Now he creates a new external community for the delivery of the RFP. He lays out the content of the response, a series of supporting videos and presentations, and introduces the team who worked on different parts of the response.

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When this is complete, he invites Ava, his contact from the prospective customer to join the community. She becomes a “guest” in the Mobile1to1 network. Ava requests that Jamie and Millie are also added to the community – this is something that Brad controls as owner of the community, because as a security safeguard, company policy prevents guests inviting more guests.

Once the UKTechCo team have downloaded and read the RFP, they have a number of questions which require clarification. These are posted as comments on the relevant section of the response. Brad assigns tasks to the other members of the Mobile1to1 team to ensure they these questions are answered rapidly. These tasks also provide an opportunity for private discussion between the Mobile1to1 team about how best to answer the questions.

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Mobile1to1 are invited to present their response in person. After the meeting, follow-up actions are managed in the community, ensuring that all communication is consolidated in one place. These discussions lead to more people from both Mobile1to1 and UKTechCo becoming involved in negotiations. These new additions can quickly get up to speed on discussions so far by reading through the comments in the community.

For final negotiation of commercial terms, a second community with reduced membership is created to ensure confidentiality of topics that are not appropriate to be shared with all members of the respective teams.

Make It Real

  • When creating external facing communities, make sure the access controls of content within the community is set correctly, and that no internal-only content or discussion is allowed to “spill” into external communities.
  • Encourage everyone on both the vendor and customer side to keep all communication within the community, to avoid discussion being fragmented by email. With all discussion in one place, it’s easier to see what has happened, and for new additions to either the vendor or customer team to catch up.
  • Help the customer understand the benefit of delivering an RFP in this way. Some companies may find this unconventional and be initially uncomfortable. It would, of course, be counter-productive to lose a deal by insisting on communicating in a way that the customer does not like. But equally, this approach demonstrates a more modern, enlightened way of customer communication, and many customers will welcome this.
  • Also consider the inverse of this example – where the buying company requires all vendors to submit their RFPs to a private community in a social network owned by the buyer. Here there is a much greater opportunity to insist on delivering responses in this way as the buyer can refuse to accept submissions delivered in other ways. Few vendors will endanger a deal by refusing to join the network.
  • If the deal is closed, continue using similar techniques for post-sale account management communication.

Managing An RFP Response

Part 5 of the Social Business For Real Work series

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The Challenge

Business-to-business sales teams often have to create detailed responses to RFPs (requests for proposals) and need to draw upon knowledge from across the company at very short notice. Managing this process by email is tedious and error-prone, with team members either being overloaded with updates from other members, or lacking important information. The result is a slower process and lower quality result that should be achieved.

The Social Business Advantage

An enterprise social network provides an ideal place to coordinate all the activities for the RFP response. A clear list of roles and responsibilities can be published, and each contribution to the response is accessible to all team members to review. When additional people need to join the team, they can quickly catch up on progress so far. Tasks enable the sales manager to keep track of who has completed their deliverables, and mobile access to the network enables them to stay in touch with the process even while they are out at other customer meetings.

Example

Brad is the Sales Director for Europe. He has a large sales opportunity, but needs to submit an RFP response in two weeks. The RFP has a lot of detailed technical questions which the European team is not able to answer, so he needs help from the product team in the US. He also needs help in constructing a pricing structure for the deal, and approval from the Finance team for this structure to ensure it meets compliance requirements. Brad creates a community dedicated to the RFP response. The customer has requested that information in the RFP is circulated within the company on a need-to-know basis, so the community is set to only be accessible to invited members. Brad publishes the RFP documentation, and background information about the prospect. He divides up the work, assigning tasks to people he needs assistance from. Carmen, the VP of Products delegates the task assigned to her to one of her product managers, Sergei, who is added to the community. sbrw5-1 As each member of the team submits their contribution, Brad reviews it and posts comments where any further work is required. Finally, he constructs the final response, and submits it to his manager and the VP of Finance for approval before it is sent out to the prospect. sbrw5-2

Make It Real

  • Create a community for each major RFP response. Where the same team is working on multiple RFPs from the same company, it probably makes sense to have a single community for all of them. But handling all RFP responses in a single sales community is unlikely to be efficient as it will probably lead to a large amount of activity that not all community members are interested in.
  • Make the community visible to as wide an audience as customer confidentiality allows. In the example above, the customer requested that information was treated on a need-to-know basis, but this is relatively unusual. Opening the RFP community to a wider audience within the company enables more people to benefit from the knowledge shared in creation of this response. It also increases the chances of valuable serendipitous input from people outside the RFP team.
  • Ensure that all documentation relating to the RFP is shared with the community, and that everyone who is contributing to or reviewing the response is invited as a member.
  • Publish the list of who’s doing what prominently in the community. Also create tasks with due dates for each assignment.
  • Ensure that all review feedback is submitted in the community as a comment on the relevant file. Don’t accept feedback outside the community, e.g. via email, as this fragments the discussion and makes it hard to follow.
  • When the final RFP response is completed, ensure it is published in the community for future reference.
  • If the deal is won, create a separate community for account management activities – don’t muddle pre-sale RFP response work with and post-sale account management together in the same community.