When to Offer Community Support – And How to Do It Well

community-support_1-01_largeMany companies already know the benefits that come from implementing community support. Done well, peer-to-peer support can help businesses save time, reduce costs and offer even better customer support – all while keeping people talking about their brand and products. But for other companies, the thought of empowering customers to answer one another’s product or service questions is a more than a little nerve-wracking – and in some cases doesn’t make sense.

So how do you know if offering a community support option is right for your company? This post explores what goes into making that decision – and what you can do to help ensure success if you do.

When does community support make sense?

Online communities where customers offer support to other customers are likely to succeed in companies that sell products or services that inspire excitement and command loyalty among customers.

Two great examples are Apple and Harley-Davidson. Both have customers who are among the most zealous and loyal in any industry – brand evangelists who live and breathe the products and who are happy to spend time sharing their expertise and enthusiasm with others.

But even if your product or service doesn’t seem quite that exciting at first glance, don’t count out your customer base just yet. There just may be a critical mass of people who love talking about the subject and just need a little nudge to channel that excitement and expertise to “work” for your brand. After all, that’s the beauty of the Internet: There are people online all over the world who are excited to share what they know about every topic imaginable (and many times you don’t need a huge group to see a notable impact). Peer-to-peer support is a great way to find your people and harness their knowledge to benefit both your customers and your company.

Bear in mind, too, that community support doesn’t have to be about a specific company or product; sometimes, it’s the general field or industry that fires them up. For example, auto enthusiasts are at the heart of an active, vibrant online community at Edmunds.com, a popular site among people who are shopping for cars.

How companies are making peer-to-peer support work

Once you determine community support is a good fit for you, how do you know those excited customers will really post high-quality, reliable content on behalf of your company? They will – if you lay the right groundwork for it. Here are three specific steps you can use to help ensure your effort is a success.

  1. Recognize expertise

    Customers enjoy being recognized for their efforts, and any peer-to-peer support system should have a structure in place to highlight those who contribute valuable content to the program. One common way to do so is with detailed profiles, which showcase who your experts are and what they do. Over time, the people who provide the most thoughtful and helpful answers to customer questions are recognized as “thought leaders” for your company and your industry, which helps further their own online reputation. That is a powerful incentive for people who know how to turn that online reputation into opportunity.

  2. Reward time and effort

    For some experts, the satisfaction of growing an online reputation is enough – but others may be inspired by more immediate rewards. A good community-support system should be able to effectively identify top performers and give specific rewards based on their activity. Such rewards can take the form of badges and titles, as well as more tangible certifications, promotional merchandise, discounts or even prizes. One company that does all of this well is ABB Group, which allows users to redeem any reputation points earned for tangible rewards.

  3. Moderate thoughtfully

    When you invite customers to be part of the process of providing information and support to other customers, it’s important to have a system in place for reviewing and approving content that comes in. It’s up to you whether this happens before or after posting; the important thing is that you have awareness of what’s coming in and the ability to manage it. This will help you keep reasonable control over the content that is presented on your site and that represents your brand to your other customers.

    At the same time, you also don’t need to over-control customer communities. In fact, trying to manage community members too tightly can backfire, as a Harvard Business Review article cautions. Moderating content for appropriateness is one thing, but censoring legitimate complaints or opinions about your product or business can lead to anger and resentment among the very people whose help and support you seek. Don’t fear criticism; instead, see it as an opportunity to improve your product and to win even greater customer loyalty and respect.

    In the end, customer-generated content and your response to it both reflect on your brand. Keep an eye on your community and maintain an active presence in it with that idea in mind.

Where to start if you feel peer-to-peer support is a fit

Feeling confident that your brand or company has the customer base that could provide a robust source of customer support information? Then it’s time to determine the form and structure you want it to take. Start by exploring your current systems to see if there is a peer-to-peer support option available that is robust enough to do the job. If not, there are tools like Jive, Lithium and Answerbase that allow you to easily add peer-to-peer support options to your customer support efforts.

The results of creating such a support system can include freeing up more time for your customer service representatives, offering your customers the best answers from the best possible sources and increasing the credibility of those answers because they come from a wide-ranging community of experts – not just paid employees of your company. As the examples of successful online community support in this post show, you may find that the benefits of offering peer-to-peer support are well worth the effort.