In today's global economy, you're no longer competing with just the businesses in your town. You're competing around the world, and you may offer similar products and services to half a dozen other vendors, maybe more. You need a way to differentiate yourself outside of product and price, which can only be tweaked so much.
Smart businesses that find themselves in this situation turn to customer support as the differentiator.
Excellent customer service and support are highly effective ways to stand out because they also build loyalty among your customers. It will often cause them to select you for renewals and recommend you even if your prices are higher than the competition. Just consider these stats:
- 95% of global consumers said good customer service is an important influencer of their brand loyalty [Microsoft]
- 61% have stopped doing business with a company due to poor customer service [Microsoft]
- 75% of companies believe they’re customer centric, while only 30 percent of consumers agreed [Capgemini]
Clearly, there’s a major divide between perception and a hard reality.
So how do you create a great customer service experience that puts you on the right side of these statistics?
One of the most basic ways is to provide service when others don't, and in a way that others don't. For example, it's nearly impossible to be a world-class customer service provider when your traditional customer support hours are limited. That's where an online customer community comes in.
Let’s look at eight ways that communities can improve your customer support and make your customers more successful, overall.
The Role of Online Customer Communities in Remarkable Customer Service
Online communities are naturally suited to improve customer support. No – it’s not about eliminating your customer support team by replacing it with an online community. The two should work hand in hand.
By giving customers a go-to place to ask questions, help each other and learn, your company can create a support environment that will complement your pre-existing teams, giving them much needed relief and improving their insight into customer problems.
The best type of customer support portal is one that provides options for peer-to-peer support while at the same time allowing users to connect directly to customer service representatives. By creating an online community with both options, you provide a social customer support experience for your customers and help differentiate your brand at the same time.
1. Knowledge Sharing
Not all customer service conversations are about problems. Some customers simply need advice on what new products would best solve their recent problems or the most efficient ways to use a product. Save your support team some time and allow your customers to answer these inquiries for you.
An online community not only publicly documents how to fix problems, it allows fellow customers to offer solutions.
This is incredibly powerful for several reasons:
- Your customers are in the product and know it differently than you (they may come up with interesting, out of the box solutions your support team never would have suggested)
- Customers can connect with each other, which creates loyalty and makes your online community just that—a community
- Letting more people into the conversation doesn’t expose the world to your company’s faults—it opens your customers and company up to more interesting, creative solutions that end up benefiting everyone in the long run
For example, in Higher Logic’s own user group community, HUG, we have community champions who help other customers solve problems they experience or offer creative workarounds to common challenges. They’re a big help to our customer support team and work with them to identify whether issues are isolated or a bug.
By and large, online community fixes this problem by bringing better, more thorough answers to customers at any time of the day.
2. Support Ticket/Case Deflection
Rather than calling or emailing, waiting, explaining the problem and waiting more, customers can first search the community to see if anyone else has had a similar issue. Customers can learn from each other’s past experience through discussions and resource-sharing.
On top of that, your customer support team may be able to link customers to a thread in your online community that fully answers their question. Jama Software uses their customer community in this way.
- Their ticket volume has continued to go down since launching an online community, even though their customer base has grown. Customers have learned that the most efficient way to find an answer is to search the community first, and then take it to support if they can’t find it.
- And it makes staff’s lives easier too. 73% of Jama Software’s responding staff have found that many inquiries can be solved by linking their customers to the best resource in their online community.
What about those times when a customer really does need one-on-one support? When those instances come up, you will have the mechanisms—and more time—to properly deal with those issues.
In fact, many online community platforms integrate with support software so a customer can easily create a ticket, sending the entire thread to the support team so they have all the background they need to help.
Giving customers a space to help each other saves your support team time and reduces your support costs overall.
3. User-Generated Resource Manual
Helping one person at a time isn’t efficient for anyone. And that’s what traditional customer service often focuses on.
Think about it—when you help customers through email, phone or social media, you’re almost always helping just one customer at a time. Even if you publicly tweet at a customer, usually only that person sees the tweet.
How many times a day is your support team asked the same question? Or the same types of questions?
When customers seek help on an online community, they contribute to a user-generated, ever-updating, searchable manual. That means any future customer can search within the community, find their question, and follow the thread. As customers help each other by posting questions, answers, ideas, and hacks, they build an owner’s manual for your product.
4. 24/7 Availability
Unlike your support team, an online community never takes a break. If you have customers across the globe or in different time zones, your customers might get an answer faster, improving customer satisfaction. Plus, your customers might log in during the weekend when your support team is gone.
You can also provide resources that help them find the answers they need. Online communities provide an important self-service option that gives customers an opportunity to troubleshoot and solve their problems before coming to support, often saving time.
Tip: Build a resource library
An online community is the perfect place to collect and post your help videos, documents, and frequently asked questions. Establishing and growing this knowledge base is incredibly valuable for customers.
To use this premise in the most effective way, you should have a robust search option built into your online community platform, so that customers can easily find the answers to their questions. Make sure those search results are relevant as well. You need to update content periodically to ensure it still applies to your current products and create new content to support recent product releases.
Jama Software has been able to build a huge knowledge base for their customers:
"Because you can do so much with Higher Logic, we’ve been using it to do things other than support ticket deflection. Our knowledge base has over 250 articles, and we’re continuously adding more. In addition to having private communities for each of our data products, we’re planning to develop a community for our technology partners. The community is also a good place to gather information on our beta products.”
Kristina King, Manager, Technical Support, Jama Software
5. Private Space for Negative Feedback
Many companies—either on their own or at the urging of their customers—are turning to more public forums, like Twitter, to address customer issues. This has forced transparency. Results? Well, they vary – mistakes and missteps can go viral instantly. But if all goes well, companies can gain back customer trust and loyalty.
But customer communities can manage customer service issues while building stronger customer relationships….in private. Yes, you may still have customers fleeing to social media to complain, but you’re more likely to get complaints first on your community, where they know you’ll see their feedback.
An online community is a far more controlled environment with the potential to not only solve problems, but strengthen relationships. It works to truly shape, grow and maintain a community of customers.
6. Product Improvement
As much as customers can help fellow customers out, they can also help your team out. Although your support team knows the product inside and out, they don’t know it the way your customers do (simply because your customers use it to do their jobs).
While you watch customers ask questions and help each other out, look for patterns or interesting solutions. But don't stop there. Take that insight to heart and examine your product for areas of improvement. Your customers are a huge asset for your product team and can show you, without meaning to, where your product team can improve your product.
You can learn an incredible amount about your product and your users by watching their discussions. How do they solve problems? Is there a process that continually stumps people, or a feature that’s constantly being requested? Communities help your customers solve problems and connect with one another.
They also teach you how to read their minds and predict their needs, ultimately leading to a better product.
7. Idea Generation
Anywhere multiple customers come together, such as customer community forums and discussion boards, is bound to generate feedback and suggestions about products, services or designs.
Users often have better ways of doing things or ideas for additional features that can come out in these sections. Those ideas can be very useful in your development process. A customer service portal geared toward innovation gives customers a way to quickly get their ideas to decision makers, who can respond to and act on the best ideas, making those customers feel valued.
8. Customer Advocacy
Rather than hiding hiccups and troubles, an online community not only helps you be transparent about your product, but it’s also a space for your customers to advocate for you. When customers are able to interact with one another, as they do in user group communities, self-described power users or advocates are often eager to share their knowledge and experience.
They can respond to questions about product advantages and common uses in discussion forums. If you have a new product that may help, people in the community can create buzz and interest around the item, making it more likely that other customers will adopt products and services earlier.
Online community users that provide content on best practices and product recommendations are incredibly valuable advocates, so go a step further with this group.
Tip: Start a formal advocacy program
Create an advocacy program that ensures that these loyal customers are the first ones to hear about new products. This also allows them help shape the product through feedback. You might even consider giving them opportunities to buy things first as a perk of being a leader in the online community and advocating for your products.
Help Your Customers Support You with an Online Community
Establish your community as a trusted, efficient support channel so that users can come back to it regularly to ask questions and share helpful insights. Your business should be involved in reviewing those insights, as well as providing useful content of their own in online community libraries. In these conditions, you'll will notice that in addition to engagement, you're also building customer trust, loyalty, and advocacy.
An online community gives your customers a voice that travels right to your ears. Respect that and respond to customer feedback with programs or changes that meet the needs of the broader community. Not only will you be able to deliver better customer service to more customers, but you’ll be able to cut down on support costs and increase customer retention.
We created a Customer Support Success Kit with resources to help you navigate the world of customer support. No email address needed - just visit the page linked below to access the resources in the success kit.
Editor's note: This post was originally published by Christina Green in April 2016 and has since been refreshed to make sure we're bringing you the latest and greatest.