Beginning around 1980, with the proliferation of threaded-message discussion forums on CompuServe covering a variety of hardware and software technology products and companies, to today’s multifaceted social media, the concept of tapping a customer base / community for customer support purposes has a long history. Some companies have been very successful, and others have seen the opposite outcome. Along the way, some vital lessons have been learned that have remained consistent despite the advances and changes in the underlying communication technologies. The key elements of success in community-based Support begin with a clear Strategy covering purpose, methodology/tactics and outcomes, followed by effective Marketing of the resource and setting of appropriate expectations, Management of all facets of the community interactions — and efficient handling of the aftermath of the conversations. As more and more companies accelerate product and focus to the SaaS/Cloud model, these elements are more important than ever before.
The Strategy of Community Support
Many companies have perceived online community support as just a way to reduce employee staffing and cut costs by deflecting calls away from the customer contact center. Some monumental public relations disasters have been the result of such short-sightedness as online firestorms have erupted with no one assigned to monitor or deal with them. Opening a door, especially in the online world, can have far-reaching consequences. The first step towards success is developing a consistent strategy that covers all aspects of the online experience.
What do you want to make happen through the use of social media for support? How does that map to your overall business strategy? There is a wide spectrum of customer-company conversations; which ones do you want to encourage through which channels? How about customer-to-customer conversations? Where do they fit into your community support strategy and how will you encourage them? How will the various channels be used together, so that a conversation might begin in a forum and end in the creation and resolution of a support case? Or vice-versa? Which aspects of the online experience will you use for marketing purposes, and which for support? Most importantly, how will you measure the results and keep everything aligned with that strategy?
The Marketing of Community Support
Opening a support forum is only the beginning; you can’t stop there and expect to succeed. From before the start, it’s vital to properly set expectations about what the resource is intended to offer, and how it will be managed. Once opened, there is still a vital need to let people know that the resource is there, the value it has to offer to them and what’s going on in it on a regular basis.
Many forum / discussion applications allow for each user to flag particular topics so that any subsequent posts by anyone automatically generate a notification email, even permit response from that email. Some forums permit periodic general updates to be emailed out, notifying all members of new discussions and activity. Be sure to let individuals set their preferences for such notifications.
The Management of Community Support Resources
One of the best uses in my experience of an online discussion forum is in the creation of small working groups who can pool their knowledge and expertise to address a particular issue. In the process, bonds may be forged between the experts to create a functional community and a resource of considerable value to those experts, to the company and to the members and participants of the forum at large. It’s important to realize that the conversation can be as valuable as the answer that is finally developed. To produce a good conversation often takes a skilled facilitator or leader, and this is especially true in forum work. Every discussion forum needs a Moderator, or a team of moderators, who read everything that is posted and ensure that the discussion stays civil and on-topic as much as possible. Be sure that you have trained those moderators to understand very clearly how their tactical decisions and activities tie into your overall strategy.
What Comes After
The biggest barrier to effective use of a support forum is the “noise” factor. Newcomers tend to create new threads for questions that have already been answered. Some conversational threads may go on for literally hundreds of entries before a viable solution is worked out. If these topic threads are permitted to remain, it will become increasingly difficult to find anything worthwhile, and the forum will tend to decline in effectiveness. At the same time, too few discussions can discourage visitors and set an impression of overall inactivity. Here is where the role of the monitors is especially important, for they should be the ones who turn completed conversations into knowledge articles before archiving the thread and removing it from view.
To prevent unnecessary duplication of topics, the forum software should prompt the member through the creation process to look at other threads that may be relevant to the issue. Unfortunately, even this method may not catch all of the duplicates, so there needs to be effective pruning and moving functionality so that the duplicates can be merged into one as appropriate.
Choosing a Vendor/Application
Start your review by looking at the websites of your competitors. What features are in play? Why? What’s their strategy? What are the strengths and weaknesses you see in their offerings? Next, visit the websites of some of the leading vendors of technologies used for online community support & discussion, companies such as GetSatisfaction , Jive Software  and Lithium .
The standard features and functionality of a typical online discussion group are essentially commodities at this point in the industry’s development. There are several very good open-source packages available for free downloading and use that will enable you to establish a basic foundation. Going the free software route, however, leaves the entire burden of getting value from the exercise on you. If you’re an online social media expert in your own right, this may be enough. For most companies, however, much more is needed. In my opinion, the first point on the vendor/application evaluation and selection checklist is: does the prospective vendor have a Customer Success  team that will fully engage with you from the initial design phase all the way through to continuing maintenance and management of your new online resourced? If not, look elsewhere.
Strategy. Marketing, Managing; none are one-time events in the life of a successful community support resource. All are ongoing efforts, necessary to keep a consistent program producing quality results. The beginning, and most crucial element is that of strategy. Defining a strategy for your community / social media program is not something to take lightly. If you don’t have professional-grade expertise already on your staff, then look outside for assistance.
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