Support Forums: The Core of Customer Care

Ready to take social media to the next level? Looking for a way to jumpstart your social CRM program? Consider integrating support and knowledge communities into your social technology effort.

Social media-based marketing programs, typically built around outreach and scheduled outbound communication, are one element of the marketing effort in savvy organizations. Fishing where the fish are – Facebook is approaching 1 billion members worldwide – makes a lot of sense, especially when highly targeted advertising based on verified demographics that were only dreamt of 10 years ago is within the reach of any marketing professional.

But beyond outreach, what do you do? How do get the fish into the boat? The answer may surprise you, for two reasons. First, consider the path to advocacy, the process through which an ordinary customer is raised to super fan status. It doesn’t happen in conventional marketing alone, because advocacy is driven not by a promise made, but by a promise kept. That means operations. Second, that promise-keeping technology isn’t found in your brand outposts: it’s found in the interaction between customers that is facilitated by those outposts.

What’s this mean in plain terms? It means that a well-built support forum can be a powerful marketing tool. Expand the definition of “marketing” to include all forms of brand-building communication: outreach, advertising, and pre-sales experiences are clearly part of this. But so are post-sales experiences (which typically outnumber pre-sales over the customer lifetime) like service requests, resale/renewals, and requests for referrals or recommendations. These are all driven by the same thing: customers sufficiently delighted by past experiences that they are willing to seek help when the inevitable issues arise, to re-up for another year, or to offer via their social graph their positive comments for others to consider.

At the center of the support process – driven by the social web, customer empowerment, and the diverse experiences of customers – is the support forum. Unlike a telephone-based process, the support forum is a ready-when-you-are, 24/7 source of information. To be sure, there are some issues – getting a seat on a plane or securing a return authorization – that require an agent. Successful firms have invested billions of dollars in creating great agent-based service experiences. At the same time, customers not only want to answer questions themselves but to also cover more situations and get the information they need at a lower cost. That’s good for your business on all counts.

The challenge of meeting customers’ increasingly sophisticated service needs arises as customer acceptance of forums grows: the unwary brand can find itself quickly disintermediated by failing to capture customer knowledge in a branded support environment. Moreover, empowered customers are significantly more likely to talk in highly connected social channels about their experiences with your brand, product, or service. That means you need to be prepared to participate – at scale – and to ensure that your customers see you or your brand as responsible for their satisfaction.

Case in point: Dell. For all of the well-deserved credit for work done on social media marketing, remember that Dell got its start on the social web; not on Facebook or Twitter but rather on a first-of-a-kind support forum built for Dell by Lithium Technologies. Next came SFDC’s “Ideas” platform, and only then the expansion into social media marketing. I had the pleasure of meeting the team at Ant’s Eye View in Austin last week as I was presenting a new customer care platform from my firm. In fact, a good part of the team at Ant’s Eye View came from Dell’s early social customer care effort. Smart people. By the way, if you want an interesting insight into the development of these early, innovative customer care platforms, check out Chapter 15, “Beyond the Status Quo” in Howard Schultz’ “Onward.”

Today, most brands are in effect playing catch-up: they’re all over the social web with marketing programs but are just now connecting the dots with operations and customer care. And they are discovering it’s really hard work. Integrating a support forum into a marketing program is – let’s be honest – easier said than done. Traditional advertising combined with “800”-based service agents means that customers hear your message – and only your message – across all touch points. That makes consistency easier but also gives your customers the least flexibility when seeking information. Decoded, that means they turn to the web and compare you with what is available via search. That’s hard enough to compete with, and even harder to win against. Yet, building “social” into your care program is fast becoming the new front in the push for business success.

Opening up the brand and participating on the social web addresses the challenges of traditional approaches to business: by being present and participating on the social web you “become part of the action” and customers become less likely to “seek the truth” on the social web and instead come to you with questions. Sure, smart consumers still actively research using search, but to the extent they see you as an ally they are checking options rather than looking for an alternative. Every edge helps in modern marketing, and being perceived as a partner is a big edge.

Extending your social marketing into support by integrating a support forum is a logical step. By giving customers a place where they can interact and share questions and answers with other customers you’re inviting customers to bind themselves not just with your brand but with the community that you helped to build around your brand. That community will provide more than answers, too: it will drive innovation, it will provide defense in times of crisis, and it will give you a platform on which to test new ideas. Built around the needs of your customers, support forums can be the ultimate anchor point for your social marketing program.

As you scale up and build your social web presence, be sure to consider the role that a support forum can play: helping customers help themselves to a better experience, with your products and services, in a context where sharing comes naturally, can be just the ticket to winning on the social web.

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