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How the Customer Support Funnel Works for an Online Community

Written by Hunter Montgomery | on November 17, 2016 at 3:30 PM

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Funnels, chutes, hourglasses - they’re all used to help us plan the customer’s journey with our organization (or maintain a particularly organized baker’s kitchen - depends on your audience).

There are tons of models and terms we can use when we talk about customer acquisition, and getting people to engage with your brand or organization.

Online communities are no different. So, what shape should you use? How are you getting people engaged in the first place, and how do you make them stay?


Measure member behavior from the start

Let’s consider the hourglass - it’s a great compromise, given its focus on both early engagement and customer onboarding. This particular acquisition model is also having a moment, with thought leaders like Robbie Kellman Baxter touting it in her book, The Membership Economy.

“Many companies are content with a wide top and a narrow bottom,” Robbie explains in the book, “the idea being that it’s always good for more people to engage with you and try your product. However, funnels involve a lot of waste. Many of the people at the top who interact with your brand will never become customers and maybe should never become customers.”

Robbie also says, “By measuring how new members behave, whether they refer friends and what distinguishes the loyal ones from the ones who leave, the funnel can have greater value for membership-oriented organizations.”

This is great advice for online communities - we need to be cognizant of how we’re interacting with and improving our customers’ experience and journey with our brand. How do we start using this hourglass funnel in our own acquisition and retention programs?

Use the customer support hourglass funnel for community

Community really shines at this point. It’s the perfect ecosystem for a strong customer experience, and it’s a place to test the hourglass/funnel concept in a constructive way.

We think Help Scout got it right recently, when they highlighted the four stages of an hourglass: onboarding customers, supporting customers post-sales, retaining customers, and building advocacy around customers. Help Scout focuses on the customer support angle, but that aligns well with community strategy.

Support and community can and should go hand-in-hand. Here’s how you can apply the hourglass funnel approach to your community engagement and support:

1. Onboarding and post-sales support

You have new customers or new community members - congratulations. What are you giving them right off the bat, and how does that convince them to stick around?

If you can deliver immediate value (read: make something easy), you’ll have a greater chance of keeping those awesome new customers around. Robbie highlights Netflix in her book frequently - the company’s focus on delivering a great experience to new members right away has been a pillar of the company’s mission since its early days before streaming, when customers ordered DVDs through the mail.

Netflix Director of Marketing Camille Watson said, “We knew members couldn’t experience the full power of Netflix until they returned the first three movies and could experience the rapid turnaround in getting the next movie. So we made sure that they picked five movies up front.”

Think about it this way: What is your community’s “top five movies” offer? Are you encouraging quick and easy participation in discussions relating to that new member’s interests? Did you send customers a series of How-To product videos to get them started in your user group?

Another way to look at it: figure out what your community’s top content experiences are, and tailor them to new customers and members. If members consume and interact with each other early, they’ll discover the community’s usefulness and find value in coming back.

Useful and educational content will go a long way in your onboarding and post-sales support. Content should be easy to find, navigate and interact with - that’s where variety helps. Whether it’s tagged discussions, FAQ pages, a detailed member directory or well-placed videos and articles, these various touch points will act as an extension of your onboarding experience.

2. Retention

What if you’ve got the content, but no one likes it? Are you educating customers and members, while keeping feedback channels readily available?

Volume and over-the-top offers aren’t the answer. Matthew Dixon, Group Leader at CEB and co-author of “The Effortless Experience,” presents an argument that values effort over delight. He originally explained his findings in this Harvard Business Review article, stating:

“Two critical findings emerged that should affect every company’s customer service strategy. First, delighting customers doesn’t build loyalty; reducing their effort—the work they must do to get their problem solved—does. Second, acting deliberately on this insight can help improve customer service, reduce customer service costs, and decrease customer churn.”

Armed with a strong onboarding process, how do you think your community and its content holds up to a good customer service standard? If it doesn’t, consider how you can inject the voice of the customer or member into the community experience. Here are a few ideas to keep feedback a top priority for a thriving community ecosystem:

  • Dedicated user groups. Offer a space for new users, product experts, staff, and community enthusiasts to chat.
  • Product advisory councils. Elevate your active community members with a real platform for product improvements, open discussions and change.
  • Open feedback channels (forums, surveys like Net Promoter Score). The survey is still an incredible feedback tool, when used sparingly and with simple, constructive questions.

“Inertia isn’t love, and feedback isn’t strategy.” -Robbie Kellman Baxter

3. Advocacy

This is where your community and support teams come together and spread the word. If you’ve provided an easy, educational experience that people come back to (onboarding and retention), then building a network of advocates, influencers and active community supporters should flourish with time.

Help Scout makes the case for including community in its recent post:

“The advocacy stage is all about connecting customers so they can support each other and share best practices around your product. The common touch points here: community forums, social media, testimonials, meetups, user conferences…connecting customers through community forums and events helps reaffirm your product’s value and spread the word to potential customers.”


Incorporate the customer experience into community

Approach your community with a customer support lens and use the hourglass funnel as your guide. If you want to dive into more customer experience concepts for your community strategy, check out our recommended reading list:

Topics: Engagement, Marketing

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