How Online Communities Improve Customer Support

8 minute read

March 30, 2017

How Online Communities Improve Customer Support

But despite these benefits, many companies are still hesitant to implement such programs. Why?

Vanilla Forums wanted to know, so we collaborated with analyst firm Demand Metric to get to the bottom of it. We interviewed over 400 customers, as well as 200 managers, leaders and support professionals to discover the challenges as well as the benefits of self-serve support strategies. In this article, we’ll communicate the findings from our study, and show how community support drives better results – translating into higher profits and customer loyalty – so you can walk away with everything you need to know to develop your own online customer support community.

Customers want to help and be helped by each other

We’ve all been there… waiting on hold when you should be doing something else, the parade through endless computerized prompts, just to reach someone reading off a checklist. Waiting days for an email response to a simple, but important question. Customers today have understandably become disenfranchised with traditional customer support options.

Enter the self-serve support system. Self-service support generally relies on your customers to help each other with their questions. While often difficult for the Type A personality to swallow, community-based support sees great results that leaves customers wanting to come back.

Why? Two words: trust and convenience. Customers know they’re speaking with an individual, a peer, who not only experienced the same problem but has a solution. And that makes them feel at ease.

It’s therefore no surprise that in a recent survey, as many as 56% of respondents who have used a customer community before stated that having a self-serve support arm to rely on is an important contributing factor when choosing a company’s products and services.

You see, contrary to initial impressions, you’re not taking anything away from your customer. Many companies utilize self-service support in addition to traditional customer service channels, such as phone and email. So what you’re doing is giving them an additional and immediate way to solve their problems while enhancing the user experience; saving time and money for both customer and brand.

Customers want better, faster support options

How many times has this happened to you? You’ve waited on hold for 45 minutes before finally reaching an actual person. What a relief, you think. And then those same old questions begin:

  • Is it on?
  • Have you tried restarting it?
  • Have you tried unplugging and plugging it back in?

And the list goes on. Eventually you may get to something on the checklist that actually helps, but how long does that take?

In most cases, it isn’t until a customer is referred to higher levels of support that they experience a solution to their problems.

Customer-driven support communities are different. By interacting with their peers, customers can skip past the basic fixes that aren’t helping them, or worse, that they’ve already attempted. They can get straight to the root of the problem, receiving the same level of help that a corporate-based IT or customer support wing could achieve.

By cutting out the nonsense and allowing customers to get right to the point, they’re able to receive direct answers to their questions from someone who can say, “I have experienced this as well, and here’s how I fixed it.”

A Growing Trend

Community support is a growing trend that should not be ignored.
Roughly 16% of customers surveyed prefer to fix a problem themselves, and will gladly turn to social media or community-based support if it means taking care of the problem without having to wait for an email response back.

While traditional live support options are still favored by about 44% of users, it seems inevitable that the faster, better results experienced through self-service support systems will tilt the scales quickly, likely increasing or even taking over live support use in the near future.

But does it help the company?

Yes. Positive customer experience results in stronger customer loyalty, and companies that offer an effective and convenient form of community support gain as much as 82% more insight from their customer base. This includes insight into the methods their customers wish to use for support, and how best to support those efforts over the long term.

Additionally, companies who rely on self-service support alleviate the strain on other traditional customer support channels, freeing them up to assist customers who do engage through them, with less stress.
And of course, there are the all-important metrics. Self-service support communities bring together customers from all over the world. Having a support base of multiple demographics means that a company can boost data easily on customer groups without having to implement any additional research programs. This results in metrics of up to 15 points higher than that experienced by companies not currently using community-based support.

Management teams give a thumbs-up

Management teams can no longer deny that the boosts they see in customer retention justify the costs of a successful customer support program. A little over half of all managers surveyed, 54%, said that they viewed most self-service support programs favorably.

The evidence speaks for itself. Rather than focusing on the “how”, many managers have evolved their concerns away from cost and instead towards getting customers the level of support they need, regardless of the channel it comes from.

By offering convenient support options that solve problems quickly and easily, management teams around the globe are seeing huge spikes in improved customer experiences, customer retention, fiercer loyalty to their brand, and increased revenue.

Yes, it’s worth the cost

Due to nervous perceptions about the effort and costs involved in creation and maintenance, almost one third of companies surveyed revealed that they do not offer self-help channels of customer support. So let’s dismantle some of these concerns.

First, a comparison. There’s no denying it : traditional support options are expensive. And while companies may try to offer sufficient, ongoing live support to customers, most must continually scale back support options. In fact, many companies have one representative to help tens of thousands of customers; not exactly an ideal formula for boosting positive customer experiences and building retention.

This scenario is especially problematic for software and tech companies. With so many products, versions, and updates, it’s almost impossible to assist all customers effectively, around the clock. Why not give them a free alternative that offers a better, faster resolution to their problems?

Customer feedback on this speaks loudly. They want to know: if I purchase your product or service, will support be there when I need it? Self-service community support makes it far easier and more attractive for your customers to go online and find a fast solution than to sit on hold on the phone when they should be walking the dog.

Now let’s talk about the investment. Even “free” customer support options are going to have some initial and ongoing maintenance costs. Building an efficient self-serve customer community takes effort, resources, and reduces some control over your product support. But let’s be honest. Your clients are going to “Google it”, anyway. Shouldn’t you be the one facilitating that search?

While initially it does take time and money to set up a community support base, it’s a great alternative to an ineffective, traditional means of assistance. That’s why more and more managers are touting the financial benefits of implementing them. Here are just three ways they’ve reported savings coming in on the back end:

  • Fewer channels of support necessary after implementation
  • Fewer customer support representatives required
  • Less monitoring and tracking of open tickets

Remember, a self-service support community funnels most of the easily solvable problems away from a company’s traditional support team, freeing up their time to focus on issues for which a customer cannot already find the solution on their own. This really can’t be a bad thing.

And yes, it can even be profitable.

We know self-service support pays for itself in customer loyalty and reduced strain on traditional support staff. But did you know it can also be profitable? Companies that give their customers a free, community-driven support system can then generate additional revenue by offering “premium level” expedited customer service coverage for a fee.

In a recent survey, about 64% of corporate teams that use self-serve support systems revealed that they charge customers for higher level service, with 40% stating they charge a “moderate” amount or higher. Charging for premium support helps cover any added costs that the “free” support programs may incur, and can even generate enough revenue to keep themselves going as well.

Does Self-Service replace traditional support staff?

It shouldn’t. Remember, the goal is to give your customer the best service and support options possible. Freeing up your traditional support staff’s time means they can focus on the customer better. Happy customer support staff = better service = happier, more loyal customers.

As a matter of fact, management teams are seeing evidence that dedicated support options thrive when offered alongside community-based support systems. These traditional customer service teams start working more effectively, with even better results.

So don’t start planning to phase out your company’s support teams anytime soon. If anything, they’ll be needed to provide a higher level of service when community programs are implemented. And remember, while community programs are great, not all customers prefer them just yet.

If you build it, they will come.

You may wonder if customers will even utilize the community support programs you spend precious time and resources creating. But put your mind at ease. As long as it’s implemented correctly, this should not be a concern. Of customers surveyed, over half stated that they were “satisfied” with their community-based support systems, and only 4% stated that they were “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with community support. Almost a quarter went so far as to state that they were “very satisfied”, leading to an overwhelming majority of happy customers using such programs.

And don’t forget the revenue companies are able to generate through paid support options once they’ve implemented a free community support program. Of those surveyed that already have a community program, 71% saw greater support-based revenues from paid options.This is significant when compared to about 65% who do not offer community-based options.

So why doesn’t everyone build a community?

If the majority of companies experience better revenues and higher efficiency, customer satisfaction, and customer retention rate, why don’t more companies use community support programs?

Like any customer service program, management teams must balance its usefulness against their overall costs. Just having a community support team doesn’t ensure higher profits. It all comes down to how it’s implemented and the perceived value to the customer.

One of the key benefits customers look for in a free, peer-based support system is relevant, accurate content. This is why it’s so important to have a customer support representative (or team) to act as community manager to remove unhelpful or false content and provide support themselves. Indeed, an online community is only as useful as the support and care the company provides to it.

You’ve no doubt heard the phrase “content is king”. This is especially true for online community support. Thankfully, 91% of customers surveyed said that they were either “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the content offered online in the community.

Be the best community possible

Ultimately, customers demand reliable support systems that are there when they need them. They appreciate both free and affordable options, as well as different streams of support that are available around the clock. By making both forms of support convenient and affordable, if not free altogether, most customers who experience problems with a product or service are willing to seek help rather than abandon a brand completely.

It is apparent that now, more than ever, community generated support is the way of the future. Whether your customer prefers traditional live assistance or peer-based community support, simply making that support efficient and accessible wins the battle.

Remember when most managers reported that they just wanted a support program to work for the customer, regardless of the channel? It turns out customers feel the same way.


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Alok Chowdhury

Written by Alok Chowdhury

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