With today’s shifting landscape stemming from the global pandemic, you might be grappling with identifying and implementing solutions to help your customers find the information they need – when they need it – in a single location. However, you may be surprised to find that you already have the solution in the form of your online community.
Communities have come to the rescue of many organizations during this challenging time. They have been incredibly successful in assisting organizations in navigating and thriving in the current environment. Why? Because they give customers, employees, and partners a single online resource to find timely advice and answers to product- and company-related questions. At the same time, they help stakeholders stay informed of critical updates and remain connected to each other. They supply important information in real time, at a scale that email or website updates alone can’t provide. Online communities have become the superhero to help combat the business and operational challenges that have surfaced due to the pandemic.
A recent research study, based on interviews with 300 community leaders conducted by Leader Networks and sponsored by Verint, shows that a well-run support community, not only offers cost savings but also improves customer experience and lowers churn rates. Given that about two-thirds of all communities are synched to their company’s CRM system, customer experience teams now have a real-time window into the customer journey.
Support Community Lessons Learned
My organization’s community site was launched about four years ago and our experience is aligned with many of the study’s findings. Admittedly, we didn’t have a strong opinion on the vision or strategy at the beginning. What we knew for certain was that we wanted another way to engage with our customers and provide an easy way for customers to find information. We started small with discussion forums set up with product groups as the theme. Next, we integrated other Verint customer-facing systems using the community as a portal. The first system was called the Ideas Portal. It enabled customers to communicate directly with our product managers and suggest new features and improvements. The portal captured all of the input and allowed customers to see what others were suggesting, vote on the ideas they felt were best, and see which ones had been accepted for a future product update.
Integrating an existing system into the online community opened the door to an endless number of new capabilities. Before we knew it, our vision was developing. Our customer community, Verint Connect, was to be the one-stop-shop for our customers.
Next, we integrated the Customer Support system into Verint Community. Initially, it allowed customers to enter tickets into the system and monitor the progress. Eventually, we integrated our AI-powered knowledge base into the community. Now, customers can search for a solution before actually entering a ticket with the Customer Support team.
We’ve learned a lot since the launch of Verint Connect and much of it helped us support our customers during the pandemic. Not only was the online community available whenever they needed it, we were able to start a group specifically devoted to addressing COVID-19 concerns. We posted the latest recommendations from various agencies on how to respond during the unpredictable time and, of course, provided discussion groups so customers could share strategies, experiences, and, yes, even what they were watching on TV!
Options for Community Structure
Something I learned that became really valuable is how to structure the community. It’s important to determine early on how your customers use it and who will contribute content and responses to questions. The study references the models below. Once you decide on the preferred model, the community can set clear expectations for customers, incentivize employee participation, and measure success.
- Company-led model
The least common approach is a pure company-led Q&A model, where customers always expect and get a prompt response from an employee. Customer-to-customer support is not the goal.
- Customer-led model
Some companies prefer a customer-led Q&A forum. In this case, only customers answer each other’s questions, while the company takes a back seat and enjoys cost savings. The customer-led forum aims to deflect tickets, but there’s no guarantee that the inquiring customer will get a fast and satisfactory response.
- Hybrid model
The most popular approach is a hybrid Q&A model where customers are encouraged to answer each other’s questions. If members don’t come up with a satisfactory answer to a question within a certain period of time – often a day or two since posting – then an employee steps in.
Our community is designed around the hybrid model. While many of the discussion topics are started by customers, both customers and employees participate in the discussion. Everyone benefits from this model as the customers feel confident that the answers are provided by internal experts and the internal experts benefit from the customer viewpoint of the issue. The hybrid model facilitates learning, which benefits everyone participating in the community.
Cultural Change Required
The study also found that community success often requires a culture change. Support communities offer ongoing opportunities to develop deeper customer relationships that can lead to customer loyalty. The community leaders who were interviewed as part of the study described how the community helped identify and overcome cultural barriers – not only between the company and its customers but also among employees.
Some interviewees described situations where very few employees believed it was their job to talk to customers or didn’t feel empowered to do so. Our employees were very interested in participating but were hesitant to do so. Some weren’t sure of the “rules of the road” when communicating on behalf of the company in such a public forum. Others were not sure they could add value to the discussions. We found that we needed to provide an orientation session for employees to alleviate these obstacles.
Early on, we hired a manager to oversee the community and have learned that more heads are better than one in terms of product knowledge. We have a total of 36 software-based products and can’t expect one person to know them all. As a result, we’re working on bringing the appropriate Go-To-Market and product experts into the community to engage with customers and partners as part of their role and develop a richer knowledge base. Part of the culture shift that took place was the realization that spending time with customers in the community was part of everyone’s job.
Communities are the Shining Star of Self-Service
And as much as we’ve developed for our one-stop-shop community, we have plans for future initiatives including:
- Adding surveys so we reach an expanded audience and gain broader insights
- Adding events so customers can access upcoming educational opportunities
- Building out personas to identify gaps in the content that our customers need and want
Don’t let your online community be the best-kept secret any longer. Leverage it to establish strong customer relationships. Create a platform so customers can easily find the information they need, engage with an expert who can address their questions and concerns, or connect with other customers or partners to exchange ideas. The engagement helps create a positive customer experience and brand loyalty.
Communities take commitment and resources, but ultimately pay dividends in your customer experience efforts.