We're living in an uber-connected world, enabled by the ability of social media to bring people together who would otherwise never have met. Individuals who are encountering similar issues or want to share an experience with someone who can relate can easily find a person who's in the same boat to communicate with-even if he or she is on the other side of the world.
This phenomenon means that customers will often seek out the opinions of other customers both before making a purchase and even afterwards, if they've encountered a problem with a product they've acquired. And the ease of connecting with others means that customers are no longer seeing the organization as their first point of contact. "A significant portion of customers are turning away from traditional, company centric channels," notes Antony Brydon, CEO and co-founder of Directly. Instead, they are intentionally and purposely trying to seek help from other customers.
Savvy business leaders have realized that rather than resist this trend, they should embrace it and leverage it to facilitate the process for customers to communicate with their peers. The most forward-thinking companies are actually creating communities for their customers, also recognizing the benefits for both parties. By tapping into the expertise of their engaged customers, organizations are developing an extension of their service teams, allowing the community to address customers' questions and learn from the discussion.
One company that is leveraging this trend is Eloqua, which launched its own customer community, Topliners, in January 2011, mostly to allow customers to self-serve, notes Heather Foeh, Eloqua's director of customer culture. A survey had unveiled that customers wanted to know what their peers were doing, and Eloqua decided to create a community where its marketer clients would be able to communicate with other customers. Aerohive Networks also launched its online community, HiveNation, for its loyal customers earlier this year. Stephen Philip, the company's vice president of corporate and product marketing, explains that while company representatives have a wealth of expertise about their products, these are many times used together with other components. "It's very useful for customers to speak with someone who has already worked on something similar," he says.
While both Eloqua and Aerohive decided to create their own communities, organizations can also leverage social channels and tap into customer-created communities, for example specific Facebook pages, notes Duke Chung, Parature's chairman and co-founder. While the former gives brands some control, Chung stresses that customer-built communities cannot be disregarded. "Many companies don't understand the power of these communities," Chung says.
Start with listening
The first step to get a sound understanding of how customers are interacting in public communities, determining what information they're looking for and what questions they're asking. "Look at the landscape to understand what customers are talking about," says Louise Erven, director of operations at TeleTech. This knowledge should then be used to develop a sound strategy about how the organization will be leveraging existing communities to interact with customers or if it wants to go a step further and develop its own community.
Organizations which are monitoring communities, especially customer-created-ones, need to be careful not to overstep and appear Big Brotherish. Erven suggests listening silently and only interjecting if a customer is in distress or a question remains unanswered. Chung agrees that it's imperative to listen to the discussion within the community and, where appropriate, engage with customers. "Participate on behalf of the brand and answer customers' questions while always keeping in mind that all interactions are public," Chung advises. This is not only beneficial when tapping into a community that has already been created by customers but also when organizations are building their own communities. Eloqua, for example, asked its customers what they were looking for from a community and then built it to address these needs, primarily the ability to self-serve, Foeh explains.
When creating a custom-built community, organizations would do well to test it with a select group of loyal customers, Foeh notes. Eloqua decided to test a beta version of its community with a small group of users who were able to point out teething problems, the most common being unclear terminology that was confusing members. Aerohive also ran a beta version for some time, allowing the company to gain familiarity with how this worked. Philip says an important learning was determining when the company should answer a question and when it should be left for the community to respond. "If we jump on every question, you stifle the conversation," he notes. Although the company doesn't have a strict policy, Amanda Henry, Aerohive's community and social media manager who moderates the community, makes sure that every question receives an answer within the promised 24-hour period.
Reaping the benefits of communities
While customers use communities both to share their knowledge and to learn from their peers, there are many benefits for organizations. The most notable advantage is communities' ability to deflect some of the service requests which would otherwise have made it to the contact center. Erven notes that some companies are experiencing between 10 and 30 percent deflection from their contact center costs. Autodesk, winner of the 2012 Gartner & 1to1 Media Awards EMEA in customer service optimization, deflected 26 percent of calls to the contact center in 2011, after transforming its peer-to-peer forums into a state-of-the-art, fully supported online community that allows customers to engage with each other, saving the high-tech company more than $5 million. The company found that half of all the customers who had their query answered by the community would have otherwise contacted customer service.
The community allowed Eloqua to scale its customer base at a faster pace than it needed to scale its support base since customers can find answers within the community. "A lot of questions have already been asked and answered in the community," Foeh explains. Further, the community can also act as an early alert system for potential problems, allowing Eloqua to be agile in addressing issues, even if they require a change in a product.
Apart from leveraging the knowledge of brand advocates, communities provide a way for companies to create new ones, Chung says. Foeh explains that Topliners was instrumental in helping Eloqua close deals with prospects who wanted to see how their peers were using the company's services.
A question that business leaders tend to ask is whether a company should reward community members. Experts tend to agree that it's better to steer away from monetary value but instead give the most valuable members the recognition they deserve. "Many peers are active within a community because they enjoy it," Erven notes.
Gamification plays an important part in this process since it provides a way to reward members with points for participation or allows them to earn badges for their knowledge. Eloqua has introduced an element of gamification by giving members points for participation that are shown on a leaderboard on the homepage, allowing the company to create a fun and competitive spirit among the members. Further, top-ranking community members who attend Eloqua's annual user conference are given a badge during the event, giving them recognition and allowing them to distinguish themselves from other attendees. Similarly, Aerohive gives its most active members recognition by giving out stars and awarding them a "champion" status.
Finally, whether a company builds its own community or is leveraging a customer-created one, there has to be someone responsible for the process who is passionate about the community and the important role that it can have. "The community won't run itself, especially in the first months," Foeh says. "You need someone who nurtures it, keeps an eye on the conversation, and connects people with similar issues."