Overcoming Roadblocks to Online Community Success

Customer Service
Customer Service
How can companies make the most of a potentially valuable customer service channel?

The value of a vibrant online customer community can't be denied: engaged customers, potential insight for product development, contact center deflection, and an organic knowledgebase. So how can a company create a vibrant community in the first place?

John Ragsdale, vice president of technology research for the Technology Services Industry Association (TSIA), says there are three common obstacles to community success.

Roadblock #1: Customer Adoption
"The biggest roadblock most companies run into, especially those just launching forums today, is how to get your customers to participate," he says. "People are so overwhelmed with the communities they already belong to -- MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. -- that getting mindshare for yet another community is hard.My advice is to start by moving existing customer processes to the online community, which forces visibility for the community, then building out from there."

A successful online community also needs a great deal of marketing of its value proposition, adds Nikhil Govindaraj, vice president of products at nGenera. The promotion must be both internal and external, to build awareness and adoption by customers and employees. Ragsdale agrees, recommending that companies mention/highlight discussion forums and other self-service options in each customer communication, including phone calls, chat, emails, bills, external advertising, and press releases.

Roadblock #2: Adequate Moderation Resources
"It's easy enough to get a community up and running, but the hard part is maintaining it," says Govindaraj. New communities must dedicate resources to moderate the forums by answering questions not resolved by the community and by guiding discussions to keep users on task and discourage bad behavior. In addition, someone needs to make sure that employees are active members of the community, and there should be one person dedicated to tracking and reporting metrics. Ragsdale recommends a minimum of one fourth a full-time employee for each major discussion board.

Roadblock #3: Expert Customer Participation
"The more informed, experienced customer voices you have participating, the more dynamic and effective the forum will be," Ragsdale says. However, few companies actively recruit expert customers or elevate power users right away. Govindaraj says that customers should be rewarded for participation. "Don't expect them to just come in and use it," he says. He adds that companies can start with internal employee moderators, but don't be afraid to promote a trusted power user to a moderator level.

Ultimately, a good online community has a great reputation and provides value to its users. That requires flexibility and the ability to make changes based on the community itself. Ragsdale says that especially for B2B companies, surveying is critical to understand forum adoption and success. Why did customers visit the forum? What did they learn? Did this avoid an assisted interaction? Will they be back, and will they recruit others? These are just a few of the questions companies should ask their community members.

"A key point to keep in mind is that like other areas of service and support, success is about process, not technology," Ragsdale says. "Regardless of the bells and whistles of the platform you choose, you will not be successful without the right processes in place."