Your company may already be working with online communities as a new way to provide service to customers. Is your company also listening to the many customer and company related conversations that are taking place on other channels that aren’t sponsored by your company? Community isn’t just one destination…

Providing Customer Service 'Anywhere, Anytime'

Companies have begun to extend customer service functions into the external online communities and forums that they sponsor. Communities offer a dynamic opportunity for collaborative support of customers to answer their questions, to give them guidelines and ideas for solving problems, to discuss new ideas and critiques for the company’s offerings.

However, “Community” isn’t just one destination -- it’s not limited to venues sponsored by individual organizations. Community is in every social venue that touches the customer and the company: other forums and social media sites offer support and sounding boards for customers of that company. Companies should understand that an overall Virtual Community can come into play for providing customer service “anywhere, anytime.”

Listening to these other social venues or communications channels has become very important to achieving highly responsive customer service/support. Listening may spur the company to join in on the discussion to offer answers and assistance. Or listening may be about clearly hearing what customers are saying and then acting on that feedback by making changes and improvements to offerings, support, marketing, and even strategic company direction.

According to Mark Studness, director of eCommerce at Verizon, the Community Forums have been well-received since rolling out last July, generating more than 10 million page views

'The Community Forums have spurred interaction among customers because people today expect to be able to find answers to their technical questions online,' said Studness. 'The feedback we've already received shows that our customers value the personalized peer-to-peer advice and feedback they receive from fellow users.' "

To achieve effective customer service in the Virtual Community, there’s plenty of work to do. It takes quite a bit of management, new processes, new culture and attitude adjustments to communicate with and support customers, to glean feedback, and to add value to the customer experience, no matter where the conversation is taking place. Customer interactions on the Virtual Community plane must be synchronized with CRM and customer service practices and processes to ensure that all of the appropriate teams are tapped to participate. Strategy, goals and metrics also have important roles.

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Source: Dion Hincliffe's Community Management: The Strategic New IT-Enabled Business Capability

Effective Customer Service Communities

It’s pretty obvious that traditional customer service practices are broken for a lot of companies. Companies are making investments in social connections to customers often with the intent of doing a better job of providing answers and support, and to learn from the conversations customers are having in a variety of social venues. The Virtual Community is taking shape as it encompasses social sites external to the company as well as company-sponsored communities, both for customers and for employees.

Companies wanting to set up their own communities with customer service orientations must first engender an internal community and collaboration culture for employees and partners. Part of the collaborative activities are the empowerment and enablement of most or all employees to be customer advocates, and when appropriate, provide direct customer support. Communities can be silo-busters for enterprises where cross-departmental communication and cooperation are important.

When creating company-sponsored communities with a mind to customer service, Esteban Kolsky provides these guidelines:

Treat communities as the most important link between you and your customers since there is nothing that can replace the direct link you can have with them -- and the free flow of information both ways...So, how do you make the move? Three things to get started:

1. Make sure your customers want it -- Quite simple, there ain’t no community without people. If your customers are not going to participate, nor do they feel they can get value out of it, then the community will not succeed. …Best way to start? Start a community alongside the rest of your support structure...Commit time and resources to grow it. Then you start shifting people over slowly, finally make it the channel of choice. Sounds simple; it is simple.

2. Make sure your company can support it -- Despite claims to the contrary, the most successful examples of community service are those where the company commits time, resources, knowledge and participants to them. If your experts are involved in the community, take interest in it, answer questions and receive feedback from customers; the community will grow and become useful to you. If no one from your company ever enters the community, and it builds with its own content and resources, if you seem not to care about the feedback and knowledge built in it, then it will be a failure.

3. Let it be – I know this is hard to understand, but you have to let the content be free. Monitoring content, censoring entries, and controlling what goes where and how it flows through your community is not the way to go…It is likely that you will have to do some policing to get it started, but go lightly and err on the side of freedom. Once the community is up and running, make sure you use reputation tools built into them so the people that matter the most (engineers and outside experts as an example) can be recognized. Communities center around self-elected leaders and they are the ones that will control the content and quality of the community. Feel free to court them – but try not to control them."

In my next article, I’ll explore why the customer experience should be the real focus of customer service in the Virtual Community, and the benefits for customers and companies that arise from customer service communities.

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