01.20.2015

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on the Mention blog.

Below, Jessica tackles the tough question of how to build community around customer support. There are many ways to do it wrong — letting go of control too early, expecting all customer support to be done by the community, or not giving your customers the tools they need to help answer support questions. Jessica walks us through six ways to do community-around-customer-support right. 

When implemented correctly, community has the power to increase customer loyalty, drives customer satisfaction, and decrease the workload of your entire customer support team.

The latter is something you can concretely measure through decreased time to response and a smaller queue of support work. That’s why a lot of companies build communities around their support channels (even Salesforce’s community has a support component): the impact can be enormous and measurable.

However, simply starting and maintaining a baseline community isn’t enough. You have to implement a community playbook, such as this one from The Community Roundtable. Customers already have a million places they can be online. What makes your community special? Why should they be there?

Here are six tips to drive more peer-to-peer support in your online community.

1. Make your community easy to find on your website and support channels

This is probably the easiest but most overlooked way to funnel your users into your community. If you are building an online support community with the potential for big impact, it’s in your best interest to have a prominent link with a strong call-to-action on your site’s homepage and knowledge base/FAQ section.

Moz does a great job at this with a link smack dab in the middle of their navigation menu on their homepage.

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Another easy win is to include a link in your email signatures for all support tickets. Customers are naturally going to submit support tickets if they have an issue and don’t know where to ask. If you have a compelling, trackable link in your support agents’ signatures (via UTM tracking like Google’s or bit.ly) to your support community, this will encourage customers to click through to the community, where they may go to ask a question the next time around.

2. Be exclusive

It’s basic psychology: people want to be included in something that they feel is exclusive and special. If you open up your community to anybody and everybody, you’ll lose the magic that comes with creating prestige. Instead, set some limits around who you want in your community (example: only allow paying customers).

Consider requiring all new members to create a short application explaining why they want to be in your community. This may result in less members early on, but the quality of content and engagement over time will be much higher as you’ll encourage members to think about why they are joining and how they can work with you to build a better community.

A great example of this is the EcommerceFuel community. Andrew Youderian created this community as a place where online merchants can “talk shop” and get help. He wanted to make sure the caliber of responses was on point, so he devised strict requirements for who can and cannot join, putting boundaries around membership.

One of these requirements for membership is that you have to make $5,000 a month from your ecommerce business and answer a couple of questions about what you can offer the community and what you hope to get out of it. While his community doesn’t have thousands of members, it has some of the most knowledgeable, engaged, and helpful members of any community that I have ever seen. People offer real, actionable advice that you know works because it worked for them.

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3. Encourage employee participation

The quickest way to turn your community into a ghost town is not replying to customer iniquiries for days, weeks, or at all. People expect answers within 24 hours, if not a lot sooner. If they don’t get the help they need in your support community, they’ll either complain, submit tickets to your support team, or never buy from you again.

To combat this early on, invest resources — ideally one to two people full-time and/or some employees to participate in their spare time if you’re a startup — to be hands-on in the community, helping to respond to issues that aren’t being addressed by community members right away.

Prezi does a great job with this. Prezi has an extensive support community team dedicated to moderating and responding to customer inquiries in their forums.

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4. Spend more time on new contributors, less time on lurkers

This may seem counterintuitive at first. All communities have lurkers. They usually average between 60-80% of all members! No matter how hard you work, you may never get even half of these lurkers to be regular, active contributors. They are simply not going to be responsive.

If you invest all your time in optimizing the experience for lurkers (ex: optimizing search, browse functionality), you are creating a library of information, not a vibrant, active community

The quickest way to make an impact early on is to focus on new contributors. According to this post from Feverbee’s Founder, Rich Millington, if a new contributor gets a response to their first post within five hours, they are significantly more likely to stay active and engaged in the community. This number only goes up the faster a newbie gets a reply.

5. Reward your superusers

Once you see a few members contribute helpful replies often, reach out to them. Offer them incentives and rewards. Consider starting a VIP program to keep them engaged.

Rewards don’t have to be monetary — actually, it’s better if they’re not tied to money. Sometimes, the most impactful thing you can do is set up a meeting between a superuser and someone on your product team, so they can give feedback and feel heard. 

I caution against giving VIPs access to moderator privileges willy-nilly. If you find this is the route you want to go, make sure to vet out each VIP carefully and set clear guidelines of what it is expected of them and what they can and cannot do. Without this, you wind up with some very sticky situations. Remember, just because someone is a great community member doesn’t mean they will be a great moderator.

6. Give customers an outlet to share their feedback

Having an active, engaged customer community has obvious benefits for the company’s bottom line. These include gaining more loyal customers with higher lifetime value, increased retention rates, and more word-of-mouth referrals.

However, if your community is only all about helping the company’s bottom line with no perceived value for your members, you will find yourself in big trouble. You need to actively engage and listen to your customers if you want to keep them participating.

One way to keep them engaged is to have a dedicated product feedback channel. This should be a place where customers can leave suggestions and ideas for how to make your company or product better. Even if you can’t use many of the suggestions right away, acknowledge them and thank the customer for leaving their feedback explaining what you plan on doing with it. This is something that Hootsuite does well and that Dell does with their Idea Storm community.

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Closing thoughts

A support community does not materialize out of thin air. It’s going to take hard work on the company side to get it off the ground and maintain it. If you focus on these six tips, you will be well on your way to building a thriving community. Need some extra help? Find  Jessica’s community building tips here.

Image Credit: ChristianBernal.com

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Jessica Malnik

Jessica Malnik is a community manager and content strategist. She is also an avid writer. Her writing has been featured in a variety of online sites and publications, including The Next Web, Convince and Convert, PR Daily, Spin Sucks, and Buffer. She also runs her own blog, which centers around community management, social media, and marketing ramblings. Subscribe to her blog at: blog.jessicamalnik.com.