Companies have begun to extend customer service functions into the external online communities and forums that they sponsor. Communities offer a dynamic opportunity for collaborative support of customers to answer their questions, to give them guidelines and ideas for solving problems, to discuss new ideas and critiques for the company’s offerings.
However “Community” isn’t just one destination – it’s not limited to venues sponsored by individual organizations. Community is in every social venue that touches the customer and the company: other forums and social media sites offer support and sounding boards for customers of that company. Companies should understand that an overall Virtual Community can come into play for providing customer service “anywhere anytime”.
Listening to these other social venues or communications channels has become very important to achieving highly responsive customer service/support. Listening may spur the company to join in on the discussion to offer answers and assistance. Or listening may be about clearly hearing what customers are saying and then acting on that feedback by making changes and improvements to offerings, support, marketing, and even strategic company direction.
According to Mark Studness, Director of eCommerce at Verizon, the Community Forums have been well-received since rolling out last July, generating more than 10 million page views.
"The Community Forums have spurred interaction among customers because people today expect to be able to find answers to their technical questions online," said Studness. "The feedback we've already received shows that our customers value the personalized peer-to-peer advice and feedback they receive from fellow users."
To achieve effective customer service in the Virtual Community, there’s plenty of work to do. It takes quite a bit of management, new processes, new culture and attitude adjustments, to communicate with and support customers, to glean feedback, and to add value to the customer experience, no matter where the conversation is taking place. Customer interactions on the Virtual Community plane must be synchronized with CRM and customer service practices and processes to ensure that all of the appropriate teams are tapped to participate. Strategy, goals and metrics also have important roles.
Effective Customer Service Communities
It’s pretty obvious that traditional customer service practices are broken for a lot of companies. Companies are making investments in social connections to customers often with the intent of doing a better job of providing answers and support, and to learn from the conversations customers are having in a variety of social venues. The Virtual Community is taking shape as it encompasses social sites external to the company as well as company-sponsored communities, both for customers and for employees.
Companies wanting to set up their own communities with customer service orientations must first engender an internal community and collaboration culture for employees and partners. Part of the collaborative activities are the empowerment and enablement of most or all employees to be customer advocates, and when appropriate, provide direct customer support. Communities can be silo-busters for enterprises where cross-departmental communication and cooperation are important.
When creating company-sponsored communities with a mind to customer service, Esteban Kolsky provides these guidelines:
“Treat communities as the most important link between you and your customers since there is nothing that can replace the direct link you can have with them – and the free flow of information both ways...So, how do you make the move? Three things to get started”:
1. Make sure your customers want it – Quite simple, there ain’t no community without people. If your customers are not going to participate, nor do they feel they can get value out of it then the community will not succeed. …Best way to start? start a community alongside the rest of your support structure...Commit time and resources to grow it. then you start shifting people over slowly, finally make it the channel of choice. Sounds simple; it is simple.
2. Make sure your company can support it – Despite claims to the contrary, the most successful examples of community service are those where the company commits time, resources, knowledge and participants to them. If your experts are involved in the community, take interest in it, answer questions and receive feedback from customers the community will grow and become useful to you. If no one from your company ever enters the community, and it builds with its own content and resources, if you seem not to care about the feedback and knowledge built in it, then it will be a failure.
3. Let it be – I know this is hard to understand, but you have to let the content be free. Monitoring content, censoring entries, and controlling what goes where and how it flows through your community is not the way to go…It is likely that you will have to do some policing to get it started, but go lightly and err on the side of freedom. Once the community is up and running, make sure you use reputation tools built into them so the people that matter the most (engineers and outside experts as an example) can be recognized. Communities center around self-elected leaders and they are the ones that will control the content and quality of the community. Feel free to court them – but try not to control them.
The Customer Experience
The number one imperative for working with Community venues for customer service activities is to understand that the Customer Experience with the company is the real focus. Most customer service initiatives and practices have been pointed towards increasing agent and process efficiencies, while reducing costs, which benefits the company in the short term while offering limited benefits to customers. Changing the imperative to the Customer Experience does much more to lead companies to real customer relationship management and retention, as well as nurturing customer success, in a more scalable fashion.
The emerging view is to create a customer experience strategy focused on the business success of the customer. By being a vehicle for the customer’s success, companies expect to:
- Extend the life of the customer
- Develop a proactive advocate for their products and services
- Extract usable value from the customer’s experience that can be repurposed
- Reduce transactional support costs by developing more educated users
- Increase the value of the customer through additional product and service revenue
There is considerable evidence pointing to the success of this approach. A study by Booz Allen found that customer-centric organizations outperformed their industry peers 2:1 in revenue growth and generated profit margins five to 10 percent above their competitors. However, to deliver these results, organizations have to walk their talk. If a company wants to evolve from pushing product to delivering customer advocacy-level value, a shift in thinking and attitude is required.
The Customer Experience is only as good as what a company offers for its customer focus: customer-centric processes, reliable quality products, partnerships with customers for customer benefit. The entire company is responsible for positive customer experiences. The entire company can only provide effective customer focus if the internal company culture maps directly to the success and satisfaction of its customers. Again, the Virtual Community that benefits customers transcends delineations internal and external to the company. A major challenge for companies is to provide a consistent customer experience throughout the Virtual Community.
Bi-Directional Value of the Virtual Community
The Virtual Community of interactions with customers provides many ways to enhance and grow positive customer experiences on a continuous basis. These interactions can be quite subtle and frequently can’t be easily measured using metrics that tie to company goals. For example, through the Virtual Community, new customer advocates arise bringing influence from their individual social networks. Tracking such influence is complex and, at times, elusive. However, significant new business for the company may result.
Dion Hinchcliffe writes extensively on the “Social Business” examining both technology and human implications, as in Social Business and Next-Generation CIOs - The Business Models:
Customer engagement on a whole new level. Leading enterprises are now finding that holding customers at arm’s length out of concern for cost is no longer necessary. Better customer service, higher satisfaction levels, and better retention are possible by employing techniques and platforms such as social CRM, online communities, and social media marketing that are especially high value. For example, financial services leader Intuit has been offering co-created customer support via Live Community to millions of customers for years, driving down costs and supporting customers much better than traditional non-social methods.
While Petouhoff says she expected cost savings, the rise in product ideation was a surprise. In the study, she writes that customer service departments are rarely responsible for product ideation, but the nature of leaving commentary in the online community lends itself well to the process -- and can lead to other benefits.
"You wouldn't think 'customer service' when we went down this path," she says. "But because the ideas are in the community, interdepartmental collaboration can take place with them. As a result, customer service has an opportunity to step up to the plate and be an extremely valuable executive player."
In the study, Petouhoff notes several benefits that positively impact company customer service operations. Customers share the “win” from these benefits:
- increase in first-contact resolution
- boost in relevant Web-site content
Two more benefits listed in the Petouhoff study stand out as very important for customers: the already-mentioned new idea co-creation, and this one: improved customer retention and customer lifetime value. If customers are sticking around, it usually means that they are finding what they need and that they are satisfied well enough to continue dealing with the company. It likely means that customer frustrations have been reduced and confidence in the company has grown. Taking improved customer relationships one step further, communities for customer service help customers become more successful with the company’s products and services.
Often in the Virtual Community, problems, questions and requests are resolved faster and more accurately for the customer, by fellow customers, company employees, SMEs, and other community participants. When active on the Virtual Community, companies should be attuned to what each customer needs, and then take the appropriate action, which might be proactive, responsive, or passive. Many times listening to and understanding the customer is the best “action”. The next step is to translate that understanding into a significant component of the strategy and direction of the company to further meet customer needs and sustain competitiveness.
About the author: Julie Hunt is an accomplished software industry analyst, providing strategic market and competitive insights. Her 20+ years as a software professional range from the very technical side to customer-centric work in solutions consulting, sales and marketing. Julie shares her takes on the software industry via her blog Highly Competitive and on Twitter: @juliebhunt For more information: Julie Hunt Consulting – Strategic Product & Market Intelligence Services