I’ve been thinking about this post for a long time. I’m noticing that many businesses will set up a community for their customers, but the community never makes it any further than the customer support stage.
My Verizon example
I bought an HTC Incredible phone from Verizon. I’ve had Verizon service for years and years, and I like them. I like that the Incredible is built on an open OS, so that I can write an application for it (in my copious free time, of course).
Since the OS is built by Google, all of the Google tools you normally use are built in. People are writing all sorts of neat applications – I have a pedometer, a wedding countdown app, an app that tells you the stars and constellations you are looking at in the night sky, apps that tell you where your twitter friends are in relation to you, an app that prevents me from butt dialing my friends, and many others.
Sometimes the applications don’t play nice with the internal memory. There is a tool that shows you how much memory is being used, but it doesn’t report that information accurately. Once you start running low on memory, applications start to break. Like texting – and I need to be able to text.
I googled around and confirmed my suspicions: the memory reporting tool isn’t providing accurate information. So I called Verizon, and talked to a really nice guy. Had me do the stock – pull the battery from the phone – move. I kept asking him how to tell what is really using up all the memory. He said there was no way. He said the best way was to wipe the OS and do a fresh install.
Here’s where customer service and a community to support customers should be different.
On the one hand you have me. I’m pretty good with operating systems, although truthfully I’ve never played around much with a phone OS. Mostly because the wireless carriers lock that down so you can’t play around with it. But from what I researched, and from my technical experience, I knew although wiping the OS would only solve the immediate problem — it would come back. I wanted to troubleshoot the phone.
On the other hand you have the Verizon CSR. He gets paid based on how fast he can get people off the phone, and how many people he can help a day. He’s not going to take up half his shift to troubleshoot an open OS issue. He actually told me this (in a really nice way though). So from a customer support point of view he identified a problem, identified a solution, and pleasantly tried to help me.
Of course I said no thanks. I went on to find a solution – Advanced App Killer – that gives me the ability to kill any running apps on the phone, thus freeing up some space. I didn’t need the answer that got me out of the queue, I needed some help understanding the deeper issue and developing a strategy to deal with the root cause of the problem. I needed community support, not customer support
If you have a community set up for one of your audiences, fight the urge to answer their questions as if you have a customer support queue to clear. While you were building the community, hopefully you were
- Finding the target community members
- Messaging to the prospective members about the types of content and interactions that would be available in your community
- Listening to what your members were saying
Now that folks have decided to join you, the next steps may be to foster an atmosphere of trust where members are learning from your official program team, but also from each other. If you can get that trust rolling then you can promote engagement and build affinity between the community members and with your program. Hopefully this will lead to a dynamic learning environment.
Building a dynamic learning environment in a community
All of this work has to happen with a background appreciation for the small world you are trying to bring together in your community. Is the content (and the way it is presented) in the community relevant to the information needs of the members? Verizon didn’t care that I was an advanced user with different information needs, they just wanted to fix the high level problem and get me off the phone.
I’m not saying to ignore the problems and questions, there needs to be a mechanism to answer every question. What I’m saying is in a community you have to dig deeper. Don’t just answer the question using a paraphrased version of a script your customer service team would use. Why not leave the question sitting there for a few hours, see if another community member has some insight? Observe the conversation between two natives of the same small world, perhaps you’ll see the real question that didn’t get asked.
Pause and think about the information needs of the member who is looking for help. Why is the member asking for help? What is the underlying information need? If you can ensure that the information need is completely met, that member will feel a very strong affinity to the community.
Even if the community managers do not belong to the same small worlds as the community members (perhaps marketing runs a community for highly technical individuals), having the community managers adopting communication rules that make sense to your target audience will help build affinity. If members have access to the vocabulary of their own small world, they will have the words they need to initiate a search for information.
Doing customer support online is easy. Answer the question, clear the queue. Community support is hard. Identify the question, speak the same language, dig deeper for the real information need, provide relevant content and answers, build engagement and affinity. There are no short-cuts, and its easy to fall into the trap of just clearing the queue. But taking the slow, arduous route to real community support will get you to the place where you are reaping the real benefits of social media.