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The last few years we've seen customer service evolve as social business continues its advance into mainstream business.

Online customer communities have changed the days of a customer calling a 1-800 number to get help or fumbling through a website searching for documentation. Online customer communities connect customers to a rich support community where your employees, technical specialists and customers collaborate to get help, solve issues and answer questions about the products and services you provide.

This approach transforms the way companies interact with and maintain customer relationships, and builds deeper connections.

Social Customer Support Communities

Many organizations across industries deploy social customer communities. Some of the largest deployments can be seen in software companies that provide enterprise social software, such as Microsoft, Salesforce, Jive and Sitrion. These companies have built long term relationships with their customer base through the extensive use of communities.

Employees can engage directly with customers in this model, which effectively eliminates the need for a call center in certain cases.

Customers helping other customers is one of the additional benefits of the community approach. Knowledgeable customers assist other customers with issues, direction, best practices and what worked best for them when using the product.

This creates an environment where the network works for you by providing a continuous cycle of customer service that couldn't be served by traditional channels. The network becomes a living entity that grows through interactive engagement with your customer base. Your employees feel a deeper connection to the customer base. And your customers feel more engaged with your product, services and employees.

The Yammer Approach

Yammer has engaged customers with this type of customer support since its inception in 2008. Microsoft adopted the practice when it acquired Yammer in 2012. The Yammer Customer Network has advanced into a global community that works together to provide customers, partners, and users deep support for the social platform.

Yammer Networks are essentially containers for social groups where users and teams collaborate. When you sign up for Yammer you are assigned a corporate network for your organization to begin collaborating socially. The external network allows organizations to create an area to collaborate with users outside of your organization on products, services and more.

The groups contain specific conversations related to different topics. In a customer community these groups might focus on anything related to your product from training, deployment, usage, best practices, etc.

Successful engagement within the groups relies on the conversations that are started and maintained within the communities. Your employees play a key role in the network's success. They should engage external users by answering questions, praising contributors and staying on top of raised issues.

Nurture this relationship -- the community is your direct channel to them and an opportunity to form one-on-one relationships.

One of the biggest benefits to using Yammer for your customer community is the capability to store documents in the networks. You can post technical documentation, user guides, marketing documents and other key elements that will provide the customers with what they need without them having to hunt for it. Yammer provides a robust search engine to help community members find what they need.

Examples of Yammer-Based Customer Communities

Microsoft has built some very successful Customer Communities using Yammer. Let's take a look at a few examples.

The Yammer Customer Network (YCN)

The Yammer Customer Network (YCN) was the genesis of the Customer Community for Yammer. When Microsoft acquired the company, it used YCN to answer any questions customers had about the merger. It engaged the customer base regularly on the network, through announcements and Q&As. This engagement eased the transition into the corporate ecosystem.

Microsoft recently moved YCN into the Office 365 Customer Network.

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Office 365 Network

The Office 365 Network is open to anyone with an interest in Office 365 and related technologies, not just existing customers. Anyone interested in joining can do so by requesting an invitation or through one of its public websites. This allows Microsoft employees, community managers and customer success managers a chance to engage the customer base and with potential customers.

The network connects customers with other customers in similar industries and verticals. Active conversations about implementing Office 365 take place in groups that are focused by subject area. Microsoft employees manage discussion groups from Exchange to Delve, where they answer technical questions, offer product direction, make announcements and more.

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There are several other Yammer based networks that allow Microsoft customers to engage with each other. SPYam is a great example of a non-Microsoft hosted Yammer network dedicated to the SharePoint and Yammer customer base. Industry experts created this network and it is managed by the customer community from all over the world.

Keep in Mind When Deploying Your Community

Community management is the most important concept to understand and plan for. A well-managed community encourages engagement and discussion while quietly and gently defusing negative commentary and disruptive posts.

Train the community managers within your company to ensure you are driving the community in the right direction. I would highly recommend looking into the Certified Community Manager Certification that Microsoft provides for your employees. The success of your customer engagement in the social community relies on attention to these details.

Your community managers must continually monitor the network to guide the conversations and ensure negative comments receive a quick response. A social community is like Twitter -- negativity can create wildfires if not treated well. Provide your team with the knowledge to follow up and address issues customers may have.

Engage your community with announcements, polls and contests. Announcing new features or product launches in the community feeds are a great way to keep your customer base informed and interested in what is going on.

Yammer provides tools for instant polls, that allows you to gauge the customer community. Contests also appeal to the community and are a fun way to keep people engaged. Regular engagement goes far in preventing the network from stagnating or going unused.

As mentioned before, the between customer interaction on problems and issues is a primary benefit of the communities. Recognize and applaud these interactions. By doing so you will further ignite the community in helping each other.

The network will take on a life of its own. And the interactions between your employees and customers will go a long way to building customer trust and loyalty.

The Future of Social Customer Communities

The genie is out of the bottle with online communities.

These communities will continue to grow in size and type across industries as companies share success stories.

If you are already an Office 365 customer, Yammer provides a way to build your customer community with technology you already own. Companies are using other technologies like Jive and Salesforce Chatter to develop these externally facing customer communities as well. Whichever solution you use, expect to see significant growth in this area in the coming years.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic LicenseTitle image by  kohlmann.sascha