Monthly Archives: November 2011

Get Started with Your Online Support Community in Four Steps | A How-To Guide

Establishing your own website community may seem like a big undertaking, but following a few simple steps will make this a success.

1. Be objective – decide why you want your own online support community (OSC). Typically there are two goals associated with this

a. Reach a new audience – people who would be reluctant to contact you through traditional channels, or savvy users who have no need to contact your company themselves but will share their knowledge to help others

b. Cut support costs – by leveraging the altruism of community members, the majority of questions asked are answered for free

Unlike social network communities, OSC are designed to help customers rather than promote products or influence consumer decisions. But the positive impact on your brand through the relationships built with fans or followers is clear.

2. Plan for success – ensure the following elements are in place

a. Time – establishing a healthy community can take as much as 12 to 18 months, so relying on a pilot to gauge success is inadvisable. Start small and simple, and build out from a single forum or category to cover your entire product range at a pace that feels right, and as milestones in community participation are reached

b. Platform – the choice of software available to host your own community is immense, ranging from free open source applications to SaaS available for monthly subscription. When choosing, plan ahead to take account of future capacity and capability needs.

c. Performance – people ask questions because they want answers. Unanswered questions either disappoint users or drive a call to your company, or both. So decide how long to give the community to provide an answer, and how long the enquirer needs to wait. Twenty-four hours is a good guide.

d. Resources – your community manager will ensure that day to day issues are addressed and that the plan is adhered to. Your community, like a garden, needs to be tended. A team, starting small, of moderators, responders and analysts will do this (see #3 below).

e. Promotion – search engines love regularly changing content so healthy community participation will increase visitor traffic and enhance the value of your web presence. Positioning your community in an easily found place on your website will achieve the best results. If it is key for your customers to find your online resources before they contact your company by phone or email, then make it easy to do this.

3. Community team – a popular misconception is that no community maintenance is needed, that it will be self sufficient. This is not so. In a well kept garden, the flowerbeds need to be weeded, the lawn cut, and fertiliser applied to everything. Having paid a landscaper to create a beautiful garden, no conscientious owner would stand back and admire the view as nature takes its course and it becomes a jungle. Your community is like a garden and needs regular attention to be at its best.

The great thing about your own OSC is that it is what you make it. Most community members contribute to the environment through their participation, however, like a garden where weeds get in bad contributions need to be founded and removed to maintain beauty and value.

Similarly, really good content is provided by community members for the good of all. This can be gathered and repurposed, For the benefit of all and as a compliment to the provider.

4. Patient approach – communities rely on people, and in the right environment people will give. There comes a tipping point where the community has sufficient mass and participation to accelerate and deliver the value planned. Watch your garden grow.

Customers value the convenience of online resources to answer simple “how do I?” questions. OSC provides a new kind of interaction, satisfying these and perhaps more complex questions and being an outlet for contributors who want to help others. As part of a multichannel support model, OSC adds immense value for both businesses and their customers.

Customer Resonse Summit 3 | Scottsdale, AZ, November 14-16

I’m attending CRS3 next week in Arizona. Chad McDaniel and his team have put on two great events already, taking a pragmatic and in-depth look at the effects and uses of social media in customer service. It’s also a great networking opportunity. The organisers have put together a 30 second clip on YouTube.

My boss at SYKES, Mike Clarkin, is speaking on “Take Control in Social Media: Make Your Own Community the Right Arena for Engagement”. This is a thought-provoking approach that counters the current focus on doing everything through Facebook and Twitter. Sure, these social networks are useful but they can’t be all things to all men.

Come and join the debate. There are still delegate pass discounts available, saving over $1,000 on the regular ticket price. This should be enough to offset the cost of travel and accommodation. Simply enter “SYKES” in the promo field on the registration form.


United Breaks Hearts

Does every cloud really have a silver lining? My Continental (now United) Airlines customer experience.

Bad weather happens, period. Aircraft have limitations, and one of these is that they cannot safely take off, fly or land in severe weather conditions. On Saturday 29th October my flight from Las Vegas, where I had attended the Technology Services World conference, to Newark was diverted to Rochester, New York State, because we needed to refuel after bad weather and a failed landing system had prevented us from landing as planned. I had around four hours between connections so felt relaxed about the delay, and reckoned that my Newark to Edinburgh flight would be a bit delayed anyway.

As it happened, my comfort turned to discomfort as the delay in taking off from Rochester, and the length of flight to Newark, and the holding pattern we were put in, ate away the available time. We landed around twenty minutes before my next flight was due to leave and then experienced further delays getting to our parking gate caused by departing aircraft queuing to be de-iced.

Once I disembarked I found there was a delay of two hours and forty minutes on the Edinburgh flight, which suited me nicely and allowed time to have dinner before we boarded. I let everyone at home know about the delay so there would be no concerns.

Then the real tale begins. The new 10.15pm departure time came and went with only a “there will be a gate change but I don’t know what the new gate will be” announcement. Then the screens showed that departure would be at 11pm from the same gate. Then it changed to show that the flight was going to London at 11.05pm, and no mention of Edinburgh. No announcement either, and this caused a bit of concern with passengers taken by surprise.

A look at the main screens showed that CO37 would leave from the same gate at 11.30pm, but the gate staff hadn’t announced this. In fact, the ground staff didn’t know about this. The flight crew had arrived earlier and were as keen as the passengers to know what was heppening.

Well, the London flight departed and 11.30 for Edinburgh turned into midnight on the screens, and then the screens stopped saying anything. This resulted in a small crowd gathering at the gate desk, somewhat alarmed at the fluid and unannounced nature of events.

Then 1pm was shown, then 1.58pm (nice to know that departure accuracy is so important), then anger started emerging. There was no plane, no announcements, confidence was drying up and questions were being asked. The gate staff, ear glued to phone, didn’t have answers and couldn’t get them. There was a bit of yelling, out of frustration, and choice words said. Then we were told that the plane would be at the gate within thirty minutes and then we’d depart at 3am.

During this period I had texted home to keep family informed w, and calling the taxi company with updates – my 6.30am collection time was pushed back to 1.15pm eventually.

3am, it turns out, was an important milestone. If we went beyond this the crew would be out of time and unable to legally fly the plane. I found this out at 3.10am after I’d been sitting on the plane for around thirty minutes. I was starting to close my eyes and planning to sleep when a Continental manager came on board with two “heavies” (policemen, just in case) and announced that the crew was now “illegal” so the flight was cancelled.

This isn’t the end of the story, however, as we were told to go to a desk outside of security where we would be assigned new flights. This obviously meant that I wasn’t going home as planned and would have to stay overnight. It also transpires that a few other flights were cancelled and the same instructions given to other passengers. We stood for nine hours on a hard stone floor, first of all waiting for staff to arrive (“will be there within thirty minutes” we were told when we disembarked at 3.10am but actually began at around 5.45am with one person to look after three hundred people wanting flight re-assignments), and then shuffling extremely slowly forwards. The queue went down mostly because people gave up or made arrangements by phone with Continental or their travel agent. It takes a long time to find new flights for parties of three or four family members travelling together.

As I stood in line, I received an email from the airline telling me that I would be able to fly home on Tuesday night, so I called Continental and was told a flight via London on Monday was available. I was also told to stay in line to get my checked bag sorted out and because the ground crew might be able to find a better flight for me. Eventually, with very sore feet, some of us were peeled off and told to “follow me” to get attention more quickly elsewhere. It was now almost 1pm.

The outcome was a seat on a flight to Glasgow on Sunday, so I’ll be home on Monday morning which is a big improvement on where I was a few hours earlier.

This is a customer experience lesson for Continental and every other company that must handle large numbers of tired and inconvenienced customers, and where patience will help them figure out what to do to get things moving again. Some points:

  • People got angry because they didn’t know – no-one even had the courtesy to try and explain what was happening both before we got on the plane and especially after we disembarked and stood in line
  • I spoke to a number of passengers and the belief that the airline knew much earlier that flights were not going to leave was firm. Right or wrong, perception is an individual’s reality, no matter how far from the truth it may be
  • As we stood, no-one offered us water, snacks, advice, information, or allowed us to ask questions

I appreciate that staff were working hard to get people moving but having a small number help customers feel more comfortable and address real needs and concerns before they got bigger would have paid dividends. A little kindness goes a long way, the saying goes.

There was a palpable sense of relief as people eventually arrived at the front of the line. Some even punched the air in joy. More so when they found that a same day flight was available.

It was quite an experience. Not one I would choose to repeat soon. I could be feeling a lot more positively towards the airline with just a little more information and being made to feel more comfortable.

Have your customer experiences been better or worse than this?

Technology Services World Fall 2011 : Email to Die Soon?

I attended the TSW conference last week at The Mirage Convention Center in Las Vegas. One important point made was the opportunity to change customer service channels used as companies strive to decrease the cost burden of supporting customers and create new revenue streams.

Interestingly, social support is key to achieving the first of these two key objectives. In the opening keynote sessions, JB Wood and Thomas Lah spoke of the high cost of email support, and the associated poor customer satisfaction rating. This channel is the least happy for both company and customers, whereas chat and community forums are both cheaper and more satisfying.

The relevance of Internet channels remains high. Indeed, chat may be having a rennaissance as we approach 2012. Chat originally promised much but didn’t have the expected impact when adopted. As company websites, and social media, hook customers to the Internet the opportunity remains for well-managed chat to keep the customer there and demonstrate real-time help to find what’s available, make offers and assist purchase decisions. Further, proactive chat shifts control from consumer to the online sales/support team by enabling them to monitor visitor behaviour and pop a window at the right moment.

As with anything, the best tools in the wrong hands are virtually worthless. Take a look at community forums built on SaaS platforms such as Lithium, Jive and Telligent. Many of these date back to around 2006/7 and won awards in those early days. Since then these have largely been under-resourced and poorly managed – failing to address the needs of the very people they rely on for their health – customers!

I presented at TSW during one of the Expo Theater sessions. My address, similar to my recent webcast, looked at what happens in the community and what must happen behind the scenes. Companies spend a lot of money on the technology platform but then fail to achieve a return on their investment because the community fails to step up. Right?

Sort of right, actually. There are very few cases where the “build it and they shall come” approach has really worked. Picture this – if you leave your garden untended, it WILL become unsightly. The same happens to your community forum. To prevent this, have your team give care and attention

  • Fertilise (nurture relationships)
  • Prune (remove abusive content)
  • Mow (clean up threads)
  • Move plants (repurpose content)
  • Cut flowers (take the important stuff back indoors for product managers)

Community forums are about people. People are about relationships, trust and confidence. These all need to be worked on. Your team is necessary to realise the potential of the community, and deliver service to customers. And over time, as community participation changes, so the team profile needs to change to suit.

I asked a couple of questions during the presentation:

  1. Was the TSIA research summarised by John Ragsdale’s slides an accurate reflection of companies’ experience? The majority of the audience agreed.
  2. What would you do next if your forum question wasn’t answered? (assuming you really want the answer). Options offered were:
  • Keep searching online
  • Contact the company by phone or email
  • Give up
  • None of these

The majority voted for contacting by phone or email which is, presumably, exactly what the company does NOT want people to do. No wonder community ROI is so elusive.

The audience at my session was great. Very engaged and interactive. My white paper was distributed – Online Support Communities – Are They For You? Enjoy reading this!