If you have ever worked in a customer-facing role, you know that if something is possible with your product or service, customers will probably bring it up in your online customer forums at some point.
Each type of post or question in your customer forums represents a different persona that your community management team should prepare for. For instance, a post where a new customer introduces themself to the community comes with an entire set of needs, expectations, and next steps which that individual can take, than a discussion started by a veteran customer advocate.
It will improve your customers' experience and save your community management team time to train and prepare for a large portion of the questions that you know will be asked in your discussion forums.
Every customer community is different and you can't prepare for every discussion topic. However, you can use these seven types of questions to create a model to categorize the questions that your specific customer base may raise in your branded online community.
These discussions or status updates represent important moments in your private online community. In an "I'm new here" posts, the customer is taking the first step in introducing himself or herself to the community. The customers or members that make this kind of contribution to the community have a different mindset regarding the community and company than those that have been customers for a while.
"I'm new here" questions are a signal to your community managers to double down on your onboarding process to make that new community member feel welcome and introduce them to other relevant engagement opportunities and ways to get value from the community.
Even the most market-driven companies make decisions that prospects, customers, and partners don't fully understand. These include changing product features, discontinuing a service, and altering a customer-facing policy.
Though customers want to be heard, they know that they are not going to be consulted on a majority of your organization's decisions. However, if your customer does not receive a response or is not engaged appropriately, questions about moves that impact customers and your company's product direction can quickly blow up into PR nightmares.
It is important to stay on the lookout for product support questions that customers ask in your online forums. You can bet that for every customer that posts a question about how to do something with your products or services, there are many more who have the same question that don't ask about it in the community and potentially remain frustrated.
Sometimes your customers are not seeking specific answers about specific features; they learn better through stories of how others have solved a problem. In these questions, customers are looking to connect with other customers who are (or have been) in a similar situation.
Rather than jumping in with support-style explanations about how to accomplish their goals, your community managers should use their knowledge of the community and connectivity to other groups within the company to connect people looking for success stories with customers who have those stories.
People like to give advice. They do it both to build their personal brand and out of a desire to be helpful. Many of your customers are proactively share tips, workarounds, or solution that they have learned with others in your customer community or user group.
It is important to recognize their contribution. However, also be prepared to add to their solution, ask clarifying questions to further the usefulness of the discussion, and correct glaring incorrect information. The trick is to do it all in a very positive, enthusiast way. You can even promote customers' "how I did it" discussions in featured content areas of your customer community or your email newsletters.
Online customer forums are not solely about product support, providing prospects better information during their buying process, or validating new product ideas.
Many businesses and membership organizations use their private online community to position themselves as a leader in their industry. Online customer communities act as a central online hub for industry information, advice, and legislative news.
The "how will things change" questions in your customer forums usually involve customers asking the community for input about how factors outside the company and community will impact their business. These most often revolve around market or industry-related questions.
These discussions are an opportunity to engage your customers and partners while "walking the walk" in your trusted advisor role. These questions in your customer community forums also provide good opportunities for your marketing department to develop content around the topics and your sales people to give guidance to the organizations they are working with.
Keep in mind that you don't know all of the answers. Provide your insight and reassurance to customers without sounding like a know-it-all and responding to customers so absolutely that you shut down opportunities for an ongoing conversation in the forums.
These forum posts can be troublesome and are seen in every type of customer forum from time to time. "Look at me" discussions are simply self-promotions. They are sometimes overt and sometimes cast as educational content or discussion questions.
Companies need to walk a fine line in policing these types of forum questions. Any censorship, no matter how helpful, can hurt the level of engagement in your customer community. However, activity may also decrease if "look at me" posts dominate your forums (like they do in many LinkedIn groups).
Online customer community software has strong segmentation, so that only certain customers and partners can view and post in certain forums. Since members of active customer communities can be familiar with each other, the community and forums often police themselves. Egregious spammers can be put on probation with permission to view customer forums, but limited access to post, or kicked out of the community altogether.
All of these questions represent a make-or-break moment for your customer relationship strategy and community management team. While handling these questions appropriately is important to grow and maintain the health of your online customer community, it is also important to remember that in a networked industry, one bad experience can resonate into thousands of brand-damaging impressions.
You see from the seven types of questions above that not all questions can be answered with a cookie-cutter response.
Coach your support and community management teams on recognizing the different types of questions in your online customer forums. Be prepared to give appropriate, informative answers that not only address your customers' specific questions, but also keep in mind where they are coming from and the intend behind their contribution.
Sometimes, it is appropriate to respond to customer discussions, sometimes another customer or partner will beat you to it. In some cases, you will want to contact the customer offline. In other cases, you will use your community management skills to connect customers with questions with other customers or partners that have answers - asking those experts to respond in the discussion forum.
To create a framework for determining how to respond to questions in your customer forums, I recommend two guiding principles:
Maintain customer loyalty and keeping customers engaged in your online community does not call for a mindless "they ask, you answer" environment. You have customers helping customers, employees helping customers, and partners helping customers.
The most effective responses are often nuanced and demand preparation to meet both the goals of your individual customers and the mission of the community.