Customer Service is Dead — Long Live Community Service!

I have had lots of requests lately dealing with social media, and how to make good use of this for Customer Service and CRM – even broadening the scope into the entire enterprise.  Of course, this is related to the “explosion” in twitter, plurk, Facebook, blogging and related tools.  But, is there something else there? is there value in implementing communities?

Yes, yes, yes, and yes.  This is the future of customer service.

I have been working with communities, back then called collaborative customer service or forums, for some eight years.  Of course, back then we had little to go on – some forums, communities were nascent at best -  and we could not see how it would work best.  I wrote about it as the intermediate step between Customer Interaction Hub and Secret Customer Service.  Got some interest, did some strategy work, small lab-based deployments but almost no one at that time even attempted to take on it fully.

Fast forward to today: communities are the rage – an integral part of Web 2.0. We still don’t have a clear path or a well defined purpose, but lots more is happening.  Now if the perfect time to get started – once the concept of community service becomes mainstream (12-18 months from now) it will move very, very fast for you to play catch up.  You can do this now and be prepared.

The benefits of implementing community service are astronomical.  There are plenty of case studies (Mercury Interactive, Cisco, Microsoft, and more) that have moved either part or their entire support structure to communities or forums and have increased their customer satisfaction, reduced their costs of customer maintenance – even found new ways to increase revenue!  All this by switching from traditional customer service models to community service.  So, how do you make the move?  Three things to get started:

1. Make sure your customers want it – Quite simple, there ain’t no community without people.  If your customers are not going to participate, nor do they feel they can get value out of it then the community will not succeed.  This is independent of topic, theme, method of operation or anything else.  Plenty of failures exist of communities launched without checking with customers first. Best way to start? start a community alongside the rest of your support structure.  Advertise it. Make it attractive. Populate it with good content. Commit time and resources to grow it.  then you start shifting people over slowly, finally make it the channel of choice.  Sounds simple; it is simple.

2. Make sure your company can support it – Despite claims to the contrary, the most successful examples of community service are those where the company commits time, resources, knowledge and participants to them.  If your experts are involved in the community, take interest in it, answer questions and receive feedback from customers the community will grow and become useful to you.  If no one from your company ever enters the community, and it builds with its own content and resources, if you seem not to care about the feedback and knowledge built in it, then it will be a failure.

3. Let it be – I know this is hard to understand, but you have to let the content be free.  Monitoring content, censoring entries, and controlling what goes where and how it flows through your community is not the way to go.  Think Wikipedia and self-regulating content.  It is likely that you will have to do some policing to get it started, but go lightly and err on the side of freedom.  Once the community is up and running, make sure you use reputation tools built into them so the people that matter the most (engineers and outside experts as an example) can be recognized.  Communities center around self-elected leaders and they are the ones that will control the content and quality of the community. Feel free to court them – but try not to control them.

Final word of advice.  If you read my blog on customer experience management you know that I will advise you to integrate your community into your CEM strategy.  Yet, I will also advice you to make sure that you treat communities as the most important link between you and your customers since there is nothing that can replace the direct link you can have with them – and the free flow of information both ways.

Are you working with communities? How is it going?  Do you see yoursefl replacing customer service with community service?