Online communities offer a unique means of interacting with customers. Communities are a form of social media like Facebook or Twitter, but rather than drawing together family, friends, work colleagues, and other acquaintances, company-sponsored communities have a stated or implied focus on brands, products, or services. (Of course, it’s not unheard of for friendships to develop out of these online exchanges.) For a company, however, they offer many benefits beyond the traditional service interaction.
A New Service Team
You are already familiar with the many benefits of providing customer service online: anytime, anywhere support; reusable solutions from your knowledgebase and other automated solutions; and lower costs among them. What if you could add also add a bunch of additional service agents for free? When you add communities to your online channel, you are effectively deputizing other knowledgeable and passionate customers to solve problems. By making communities available, supportive customers will quickly rise to the occasion to help solve problems and create additional satisfied (and loyal) customers.
New and Unique Topics
One of, if not the primary, goals of online communities is to provide that additional service channel described above, available to both the paid staff and volunteer customer base. The secondary is usually to give a company’s greatest supporters a place to interact. But when you put many people together with different backgrounds, interesting things start to happen. Beyond solving problems, fascinating conversations start to occur: discussions on topics and uses of your products and services you have never anticipated. And you are the fly on the wall.
Companies are always looking for the next big idea. Communities are an excellent addition to the feedback and idea funnel. In this more laid-back environment, customers will freely share their unique uses of existing products and services or their wish list for the future. Companies such as Starbucks have capitalized on this phenomenon, by dedicating a specific area of their online presence to capturing feedback and ideas from customers for new products and services.
A Different Customer Voice
When I managed a service center, I always told my agents: people don’t call us because they are happy or to thank us for our great products. They are calling us because they are having a problem. And problems don’t always make for the happiest of customers – until the problem is solved, of course.
The problems and the corresponding emotions don’t necessarily go away online in a community. While some customers might still vent frustrations online, generally there is a greater sense of, well, community when customers are interacting with fellow customers, sharing solutions and insights. The best communities have a vibrancy and friendliness to them, which are an invaluable promoter to potential customers using communities to get a pulse check before buying.
The Rome Analogy
Yes, your online communities are like that ancient city – they won’t be built in a day. Communities are a long-term investment. They require a plan – what to offer and how to offer it, and in what timeframe. Before things take hold and your customers are actively participating, expect the need to provide your own content. Consider incentives for your best customers to build participation. And make sure you play the long game – not only will the benefits be long to realize (because building an online community is not easy), but you must never stop building. Just as in the service center, customers may not thank you directly for making communities available to them, but all of the benefits described above will pay you back in dividends.