Support communities, indeed social media in general, is how a potential customer finds out what an organization is really like.

You're buying a car and you've had a wonderful conversation with the sales executive. He goes into his office to get some paperwork and you decide to wander around a bit. You head to the back of the building and you see lots of annoyed and frustrated people.

One of these people comes up to you and complains that they've had a problem with the brakes of the car you are about to buy and that they're still waiting for an answer. Another hears the conversation and says that they have the exact same break problem. Do these conversations make you confident about buying this new car?

Support communities are increasingly where people go before they buy. People are tired, cynical and skeptical of empty marketing promises. When people see slick images of Hollywood extras with billboard smiles they immediately think: "This is marketing. There's nothing useful here."

The more involved the purchase is the more the customer digs. When they dig into many support communities they often find abandoned warehouses full of angry and frustrated customers -- like Google's Android Marketplace, which had to shut down in 2011.

What Google had done was standard practice for a great many support communities. It set up the environment and said: "Hey guys, support yourselves. We're off! See ya!!"

Of course, this is the perfect cost cutter's and bean counter's dream. Why even bother to outsource support when you can get customers to support themselves? What a beautiful model. Sounds too good to be true? It often is.

Learning Opportunities

"Developers who have questions about the Android Marketplace are now being asked to submit those questions directly to Google -- hopefully soliciting a decent reply rather than the stony silence which has greeted the various problems aired on the public forums which are being shut down," The Register wrote:

"Typical of those was the missing payments," The Register continued. "Developers weren't receiving money owed on web sales, and ranted and raved on the public forum, which was the only platform for complaint available to them. That issue has now been resolved, and everyone has been paid the money owed to them, but not before the problem had been very publicly dissected and discussed."

Support communities need care and attention. You can't just leave customers on their own. Done properly these communities build your brand and help sell your products in a far more effective way than most of your marketing campaigns will. Some support communities are truly excellent. For example, Cisco (which I do work for) has a range of superb communities. Real experts from Cisco answer questions quickly.

It's long been known that what truly annoys the customer is not so much the complaint they have but how it's dealt with. And today, in this whole social media space, potential customers are watching keenly how you deal with the complaint. Support is the new sales.

Title image from Chronis Chamalidis (Shutterstock).