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Customer communities: they seem like such a great idea. Get your customers together to let them help each other and to help you gauge their mood. Build it, tell people about it, publish some exclusive content and watch the magic happen.

Except it isn’t that easy. If your product is exceptionally challenging or complex you will get a lot of participation in support forums, but that will attract the frustrated and angry. What every vendor wants is a collaborative conversation with their customers that drives loyalty and innovation. The one thing that almost never fails is getting employees active in the online communities.

Straight From the Source

A customer does not enjoy interacting with an employee of a vendor when the employee is being paid for the interaction. Support staff have to listen to customers, even the crazy ones. Sales people want more money and will let customers talk about their cat’s new sweater if it will lead to a sale. Marketers at a booth just want to get to the end of the day in order to sit down.

(Full disclosure: I’ve been on both sides of almost all of those examples.)

OK, maybe it isn’t that bad, but the point is those roles are paid to listen to customers and prospects. The customers know it and do not value the interactions. It's a transaction. Give customers a chance to interact with product managers, developers or almost any staff from the vendor on an informal and regular basis and they will value it.

You can see this at work at open source vendors where developers participate in discussions all the time. They were likely on the other side of the discussion -- as a customer -- and understand what customers are going through. They want to be part of that community, so they participate.

At some companies, support engineers spend time in forums, gladly helping people and providing valuable advice, not just links to answers. They move between highly technical discussions and talks about who wore the mullet during the last meet-up.

This makes customers feel like they are part of the team. They feel like the vendor cares about their success, not just their money. And if you can get product managers and executives to participate in the community, customers come back. Who doesn’t want to bend the ear of the person setting their product’s direction?

Part of the Job

The biggest hurdle is getting staff to spend time in the community. It isn’t something that can be measured by post count. Quick posts do not foster the necessary sense of community.

How do you encourage quality interactions? You have to incent them.

Communities give awards for active participants. Customers are awarded for getting the most recommended contributions. Some communities vote for the best participants. Organizations need to take those practices and apply them to employees.

Ask the community to recommend employees they find the most helpful. Reward employees that get the most nominations. Don’t just recognize the employee with the most votes. Recognize anyone with multiple nominations. Let everyone understand that if they contribute, they will be rewarded.

Give the employees time to participate. If you require a support person to be working client tickets for seven hours each day, they are not going to be active in the community. Prizes and recognition do not compensate for working extra hours.

In the end, the benefits of a community are directly proportional to the time and effort that the entire organization puts into it. If the CEO never stops by for a chat, people will know that it isn’t important to them. If there are no staff members hanging out and chatting with customers, then those customers are only going to visit when they need to complain. And that helps no one.

Title image by Oregon Department of Transportation (Flickr) via a CC BY 2.0 license