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Crowdservice: How to support self-service with customer communities

31st Jul 2014
Managing editor MyCustomer.com
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Although the proliferation of self-service technology is enabling independent-minded customers to help themselves, the paradox is that many consumers still like personal contact. While this combination of supporting self-service while providing a personal touch may seem like a difficult proposition to pull off, businesses are succeeding by enabling customers to help each other.

As Steven van Belleghem, professor at Vlerick Business School and author of ‘The Conversation Company’, notes: “The customer-helps-customer philosophy (crowd service) enables companies to be more efficient and improve their service without losing sight of the human aspect. 55% of consumers like the idea of other consumers helping them and 58% are prepared to help others. The customer is ready for crowd service.”

Indeed, Gartner reports that enterprise adoption of peer-to-peer service is gathering pace. In 2010, only 5% of organisations were taking advantage of social/collaborative customer action to improve service processes; however, at current trajectories, Gartner predicts that within five years community peer-to-peer support projects will supplement or replace tier one contact centre support in more than 40% of top 1,000 companies with a contact centre.

Certainly the benefits of a crowdservice initiative appear to validate this prediction.  Gartner suggests that organisations integrating communities into customer support could realise cost reductions of anything up to 50%, principally via the deflection of support calls to the community, where costs are less than 5% of those of a technical support agent.

“Forums can play a crucial role in encouraging customers to self-serve, instead of needing the help of a customer service agent,” says Rammohan Natarajan, business transformation officer and SVP at Firstsource Solutions. “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.”

van Belleghem adds: “Crowd service makes it possible to offer a broader range of services. When consumers ask questions about the product category, it is often too expensive for organisations to answer those questions themselves. When the input on non-core questions comes from other consumers, the cost is very limited.”

Crowdservice successes

But there are other benefits beyond financial factors. For starters, as crowdservice satisfies the consumer need for a personal service through interaction with other customers, it can help to develop more of an emotional bond. And crowdservice further benefits the company-customer relationship by helping consumers that are participating to feel like they are a part of the brand, often encouraging them to become brand ambassadors, which generates marketing benefits.

van Belleghem adds: “The advantage of crowdservice is that you’re connecting people. Maybe the best human touch is not between a company and its clients, but between a company facilitating conversations between its clients. So while the cost of crowdservice is comparable with self-service, customers are still talking with real people. And in a lot of cases it works really well.

“One of the best examples in the world is the T-Mobile crowdservice site built in Holland. It brings together clients, and the speed and quality of reply that customers get on their questions is actually higher than on the traditional service channels that T-Mobile offers them. So that is really cool if you can accomplish that as a company.”

Other notable successes including mobile phone service giffgaff, which has built its entire proposition around the crowdservice model, rewarding customers with minutes and other benefits for providing support to the community.

But the peer-to-peer service model is not without its challenges. For starters, crowdservice would appear to be more suited to some industries and environments than others.

“It’s a lot easier if you do it with a fun and high-involvement product, and a lot more difficult with a boring product,” says van Belleghem. “It differs per sector. Crowdservice is something that has typically started in IT environments – IT managers helping eachother out. If you have a query about Apple, you Google it and you’ll end up on an Apple forum, not hosted by Apple but by its fans. So this started from an IT perspective – IT lovers just helping eachother out as a hobby. But you also see it working with fun products like Sephora, which has a crowdservice platform for women who talk about beauty products.”

Sure enough, Gartner has noted that industries that are reporting the biggest crowdservice successes include B2B software, consumer electronics and telecommunications service providers. At the other end of the spectrum, those categorised by Gartner as ‘laggards’ include government, health insurance firms and banks.

Community considerations

Gartner has also warned that customer satisfaction could actually plummet in some organisations that shift customer support to communities. While some successfully deflect calls and enjoy cost savings, there are unsuccessful deployments, often when the brands are under the misconception that they simply need to build a community self-help site for the customers to come. Similarly, it is not uncommon for businesses to under-estimate the amount of administration and moderation that is required to maintain a customer support community.

Kate Leggett, principal analyst at Forrester Research, notes that there are plenty of things that organisations must consider.

“You need to think about moderation, and policies and procedures, although you have to ensure you aren’t heavy-handed from a company perspective. You also need to bear in mind how discussions can be started and how you’ll monitor discussions. Also, you need to know when to escalate a query when a customer asks a question that isn’t answered. And you must market the forums to allow customers to know that they exist.”

Peter Massey, MD and founder of Budd, offers other advice regarding the ongoing maintenance of the community and its knowledge base.

"A community or forum is the natural place to go to get your answers as a customer and as a provider. And if we can put the right answers into those forums we can help many customers at once rather than one at a time,” he explains. "It’s not that hard. Think of it as two different applications. The first one is where you run a forum, and then you have to think about where the contact centre agent gets their answer from in the first place – a knowledgebase of some kind. So you put that knowledgebase online and let customers access it themselves. If they don’t get the answer they go into a community site and they ask questions. They could get the answer directly from another customer or an agent can go in there and help them find the answer or give them the answer. It is not that complicated.

"Where it falls down is that if the knowledge base in the first place was no good for the agent or the website then it is not going to be any better for the community. A lot of this thing comes down to knowledge sharing – the critical skill missing in a lot of organisations is how knowledge sharing works and how knowledge publishing works, observing what information is being used to create solutions for customers, wherever it comes from.

“For instance, if I observe some conversations going on in the Apple support community I can see the topic streams and how many people are asking questions about certain things so you can pick up a big stream, you can find in there one of the answers and then you can establish that if so many people are having to look in that community for that answer then it must be that the FAQs don’t address it. So then you reposition that in your FAQs and make sure that your answer is much higher up. Then the number of people going into the community because they couldn’t find it in your FAQs should go down. So you watch customers talking to eachother and react to it."

Incentivising participation

Unsurprisingly, one of the most vital components of a successful crowdservice initiative is online community participation – with no community contributions, the programme with wither and die. According to common wisdom, it is a core group of users – the 1% that are referred to as ‘super users’ or ‘super fans’ – that generate the vast majority of content, while the other 99% are ‘lurkers’ that loiter but don’t actively contribute.

“What we have seen in research is that to make the communities work you need to have 1% of your users who are superfans, who are carrying the entire community and their enthusiasm is activating all the others,” says van Belleghem. “If you don’t have that 1% of superfans it will never work. So you need to know you have superfans, and if you do not, how you can get them, and also what you can do to involve people.”

Customer experience expert and author of The Customer Blog, Maz Iqbal, has the following advice for incentivising online community participation, and in particular how to generate and encourage ‘super users’.

“The adage concerning online customer communities has it that you should not give monetary rewards or gifts to members, as this is an impediment to the 'health' of the community and keeping it vibrant,” he explains. “Participants would be motivated only by their gains, and this can discourage members who are there for the 'social' aspect of exchanging with likeminded individual, social recognition, and finding peer support.

“Usually online communities platforms rely on reputation systems that award badges, points, and the like that play in on social gaming ideas to get people to participate for status and peer recognition. Sometimes privileges are given such as access to VIP areas of the forum as with Aprilla motorcycles, or even exclusive site visits as to some of the planespotters with Air France.

“The key to Giffgaff's success lies in ceding control traditionally held by organisation to its customers and involving them deeply with regards to innovation, branding, PR, and determining its service offering. The incentives concord with the objective of providing better and cheaper service to its members, and that motivates more active participation, as now they are "playing for keeps". Management's role is to provide the platform that brings together the ingredients, but also to ensure that the business remains viable and sustainable - and that includes making decisions that may be unpopular with the community if not exposed in a transparent and authentic manner.

“Incentives can be instrumental in increasing and improving community participation, but it would be dangerous to generalise, and illegal in some countries. Not all communities would or even could benefit from adding an incentive programme, it will for a large part depend on the business model on which it is built.”

All of these factors demonstrate that organisations must not under-estimate the resources required for this project to be a success. For instance, Natarajan highlights the importance of having sufficient back office support for the community, something that is critical to maintain high quality and a positive experience, as they represent the administrators and ‘gatekeepers’ of the site.

“The back office team can monitor forums and all the topics under discussion to ensure wrong information is corrected,” he says. “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 highlighted above, there are a great many benefits that can be realised by crowdservice initiatives. But it is critical that organisations go into this kind of project with their eyes wide open. Any enterprise of this nature, that takes place in a very public environment, needs to be conducted efficiently and effectively, or else it can do more harm than good for the brand.

Nonetheless, with these forums increasingly popular with customers, and more and more businesses deciding that there is a place in their service ecosystem for self-help communities, now is a good time to start learning about the best practices in this field. 

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