Why online forums are a fast-track to customer-centricity

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Ram Mohan Natarajan lists some of the ways that online forums are becoming a vital tool for customer-facing businesses. 

Online forums are evolving as a popular form of customer communication. Forums serve as discussion sites where people hold real time conversations by posting messages and are becoming a vital tool for successful customer-facing businesses.

Forums form a key part of a forward thinking organisation's digital strategy because they demonstrate an inclusive and collaborative approach – which helps to boost an organisation's reputation for openness – rather than a ‘top down’, unapproachable and prescriptive mentality.

Crucially, online forums help brands build a sense of community and create a bond between individuals. This bond can eventually make the customer a promoter of the product and helps create greater stickiness through emotional connection. Such loyalty to the brand can encourage customers to choose products based on this emotional appeal, even if they are more expensive.

  • Issue resolution. Increasingly customers look for solutions online before they call a contact centre and forums can play a critical role in resolving issues. The saying that a problem shared is a problem halved can be taken a step further with forums. The first step in ensuring success of a forum is to earn the trust of the customers. The mix of people whom forums attract to comment is the key to their success. Participants can include a range of users from experts capable of imparting their knowledge but also non experts to ensure that the dialogue is kept honest and easy to understand. The resolution may be provided by other community members or by company representatives and available for all users to view.
  • Influencing opinion formers. Leading bloggers spend a great deal of time on forums. If they’re impressed with a company’s forum they could easily tweet or blog about it to their army of followers, something which in this digital media age can be more powerful than a paid advert. If the blogger chooses to follow the company’s Twitter feed or becomes a fan of its Facebook page, this will further boost the company’s digital image.
  • Insights. Due to their informal nature, forums can provide plentiful and genuine insights into the real needs and desires of customers and prospects and this can help to make improvements. For example, if a company finds that many of its customers are complaining on their forum about the same technical issue, then the company can take measures to fix the issue. The resolution can be posted on the forum – giving the impression of openness and flexibility, which further boosts the credibility of the brand.
  • Visitor retention and community building. A forum on a company website, providing dynamic and high quality content, gives new online visitors, as well as existing customers a reason to return, especially if they need help or advice on a certain subject. Repeat visitors can connect to each other, building a community around the company’s brand. Longstanding community members will hopefully become promoters, which is key to building brand loyalty and product ‘stickiness’. Giffgaff, a mobile operator using the marketing slogan ‘the mobile network run by you’, is a notable success in this field and their community based service and support concept got things right from the start. Effectively, this community helped to establish the actual giffgaff brand, as its core customer service relies on members of its network to provide answers to questions raised by others. Community members input to the giffgaff forum and support other members in return for rewards; a key to the forum’s success and growth.
  • Cost-effective customer engagement. Forums can play a crucial role in encouraging customers to self serve, instead of needing the help of a customer service agent. If a customer quickly solves a problem by reading a thread on a discussion forum, then this is likely to be their first point of contact next time they have a query. Crowdsourcing information from experienced users of a company’s products, who are rewarded for their contribution, is not as costly as hiring, training and monitoring a customer service agent. Studies have shown that cost of running forums can be as low as 1/8th compared to a regular customer service agents if the community is well engaged and customers help each other. Forums can become a powerful showcase of the company’s ability to engage with its existing customers. This can also be read by millions of potential customers and hence can be a very cost effective way to win new business.
  • Back office support. Forums operating in the public domain bring positives and negatives with such a high degree of transparency. For example, if a potential customer sees an issue being resolved speedily, this can have a positive effect on brand reputation. At the same time, if a leading blogger has a bad experience on a forum they can write negative reviews which may persist in cyberspace for a long time. This is why an important safeguard when building forums is to ensure robust back office support is in place before highly visible public engagement begins. The back office team can monitor forums and all the topics under discussion to ensure wrong information is corrected. Timely and appropriate interventions can help customers and improve information quality, ensuring quick resolutions and avoiding the escalation of negative or incorrect posts. Participants have to sign into forums, so they are not an entirely unruly free for all. The back office team acts as the gatekeeper of who can and can’t get access. The right judgement calls have to be made by the team to ensure the forum is open to all and yet isn’t being taken over by a few people who are actively turning others off. The back office team also needs to create an empathetic atmosphere in the forum, to ensure visitors feel like they are part of a proper community. Knowing when to thank bloggers for positive reviews or when to suggest they follow the company’s Twitter site for ongoing updates, is all part of what makes an effective team behind a successful forum.

As forums are a ‘many to many’ communication channel, if implemented successfully, this form of customer engagement can help to not only enhance the customer experience but also to reduce the cost to serve.

Ram Mohan Natarajan is business transformation officer and SVP at Firstsource Solutions which has over a decade’s history of providing outsourcing services to the leading telecom companies globally in the UK, US, India and Australia, including 02, TalkTalk, Neustar, BskyB, Telefonica, Bharti Airtel, BT Operate and giffgaff.

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