Supporting Customers using Online Communities

It is always nice to get a little press attention, and I’ve had some great feedback after my quotes in the Wall Street Journal last week in a Journal Report on Technology entitled, “Support’s Perfect Storm.”  And, I’m credited in print with the name, having been publishing about Support’s Perfect Storm for a year now.   (I guess I squeaked in before new WSJ owner Murdock mandates only Republicans can be interviewed and quoted from now on.)  First I heard from former colleagues who saw the piece, and now I’m receiving more requests for interviews from other press outlets.

Today I interacted with Dan Greenfield, VP of Corporate Communication at Earthlink, and also author of the blog Bernaise Source, a fascinating site that explores the intersection of PR and new media.  Some of the content in our exchange has been covered in this blog previously, and I thought I’d include the Q&A since it addresses some trends/issues differently than I’ve included in blog posts before.

First of all, there are a couple of overarching trends driving the adoption of Web 2.0 functionality like communities by customer support organizations:

  • Rise of Gen-Y. To make some generalizations, Baby Boomers prefer phone. Gen-X prefers e-channels (email, web self-service). Gen-Y, the MySpace generation, relies on social networks as their first stop for support. As Gen-Y ages into the target demographic for most companies, these customers create a much larger percentage of the customer base. Companies must acknowledge that as their customer profiles change, support channels must evolve.
  • External experts. With the rise of online communities for just about everything, it is becoming obvious that the experts on some technology, or at least some aspects of each technology product, may not be employees of the technology company. From highly engaged customers and system administrators to professional services implementers, there is expertise out there and companies (and customers) would be narrow minded not to leverage them.

Bottom line: if you bring these two trends together, you have an increasing percentage of customers looking to forums to get problems solved, and more external experts offering opinions and advice in public forums. If companies don’t act quickly to establish online communities to corral and leverage customer expertise, that expertise will just get documented in a forum not sponsored by the company, and companies will lose credibility as the experts on their own technology.

Now, with that as a back drop, here is the Q&A:

Greenfield: What role do communities and forums currently play in customer support? Do you see any trends?

Ragsdale: Companies are always looking for ways to deflect live agent interactions. For the last 10 years the focus has been on pushing customers to self-service, and this has eliminated many of the simple, repetitive questions from reaching agents. Now, the focus turns to communities, where customer experts offer peer-to-peer support, deflecting more issues, and also addressing more complex issues than self-service.

In a piece of research I published after our last Best Practices conference, “Top Knowledge Management Trends: Globalization, KM 2.0 and Evolving Customers Top Member Issues List,” I included examples of how customers are making huge contributions to online content and solving issues for other customers. At our conference we had presentations on this topic by some big name companies like Microsoft, Novell and Informatica. I’ve been saying that customer forums have gone from ‘bleeding edge’ to ‘leading edge’…..the adoption among our members is high, even for B2B companies.

Greenfield: What are the key elements to consider when creating a community or forum?

Ragsdale: First and foremost? Resource allocation. Like any other support channel, if customers don’t get the help they need from a forum, they won’t come back. Yes, ultimately customers will take on the bulk of the moderation work, but at least for the first 6 months, companies must staff resources to moderate forums, answer customer issues and build a library of posts. If you don’t do this, your forum will never get off the ground.

I published another piece of research earlier this year, “Leveraging Web 2.0 for Margin Improvements: Effectively Incorporating Forums into Web Self-Service,” which discusses leveraging implementation details like the importance of integration. I’ve done a lot of interviews with members and community platform vendors about how to launch successful communities, and I did a recent blog post with the 5 keys to success. Check out this posting: Best Practices for Successful Online Communities

Greenfield: What issues and concerns (legal, financial, technical, etc) have your members expressed about moving from a call center based model to a web based one?

Ragsdale: Our members made the switch from phone centric support to web centric support some years back with major investments in Web self-service, email management, online diagnostic tools, etc. But moving to a community-centric support model definitely requires a new mind set, one in which you have much less control.

The biggest concern is that forum users will ‘flame’ the community with harsh posts about the company and its products. To my great surprise, it turns out this isn’t much of an issue. Assuming all posters must register, and are valid customers of the company, there are few problems with aggressive, negative posts. In fact, in speaking with companies with mature communities, it turns out there are 1-2 flames a year only, and in every case, other forum members take down the flamer with no involvement of the company. This is a business oriented forum, and rules of engagement must be defined. The earlier referenced research (Leveraging Web 2.0 for Margin Improvements) offers thoughts and suggestions on liability issues with communities.

Greenfield: When are online communities a bad idea for customer support?

Ragsdale: When they are not provided with adequate moderation resources. Other than that, I have yet to find a company, from B2C to B2B, for which forums don’t make sense. They allow small companies to have a huge presence. They allow global companies to have local presence in more countries. But if you think you can just install the software and be done with it, you will fail.

Greenfield: What will online customer support communities look like in the next few years? Any significant changes?

Ragsdale: I provided details on this in a piece of research called, “Preparing For Knowledge Management 2.0: Online Communities Force Changes to Support’s KM Strategy.” The future for me is expertise management and presence awareness. Forums obviously track who the experts are, but we need more granular definitions of expertise in online profiles. Sure, you may be a ‘black belt’ or ‘sys op’ on Product A, but haven’t a clue about Product B. I see a world where you have directories of experts by product and specific issue about the product (implementation, customization, usability and features, bugs and crashes, etc.). Next comes presence awareness. Like Yahoo messenger, the list of experts should indicate who is online and available to help you.

In this way, companies are extending their pool of experts from 50 internal resources to possibly thousands of global resources. And all of them are just a single click away.

Thanks for reading! If you have any suggestions or questions, please lob me an email, or post a comment and I promise to reply!

Explore posts in the same categories: Best Practices, Technology

4 Comments on “Supporting Customers using Online Communities”

  1. […] manage them effectively, while maintaining respect (and even admiration) for the group.  Usually Gen-Y is spoken of in disparaging terms at industry events, but I don’t think anyone in the […]

  2. […] from my blog, Ragsdale’s Eye on Service, addressing Web 2.0 and online support communities:  Supporting Customers using Online Communities, Proactively monitoring the blogosphere: What are customers saying about your products?, KM 2.0: […]

  3. Upesh Jain Says:


    I concur with your outlook on online communities going forward. I am responsible for our online support system at our company and am on the cusp of introducing discussion forums as part of our self-service portal. Very helpful.

    Upesh Jain
    Director, Customer Support & Operations
    Magma Design Automation
    My blog:

  4. Thank you for your awsome post. I will keep an eye about your website, i allready saved it to own list 🙂

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