Tips for Building Customer Communities
Illustration by Eric Jackson

Most early online communities were set up strictly for customers to help other customers, and companies generally took a hands-off approach to discussions that took place on those sites.

Joe Cothrel, Chief Community Officer, Lithium Technologies
Joe Cothrel, Chief Community Officer, Lithium Technologies

“Companies have come to realize that customers are not threatened when employees show up—in fact, they expect you to show up,” says Joe Cothrel, chief community officer at Lithium Technologies, which provides social customer experience management software for the enterprise. “We have seen the percentage of company participation in the community grow over the years,” he adds. “It used to be a single-digit percentage of replies created by an agent. Today, 5% to 30% of replies are provided by agents. Tracking customer satisfaction and NPS reveals that there is a right mix of agent-supplied and customer-supplied answers to hit high marks, and that we need to treat this as a fully fledged channel.”

Vanessa DiMauro agrees. “One of the more obvious positive lifts for an organization happens when customer support and community operations align,” she says. “There is an opportunity to distill the low-complexity issues and put those online so that customers can self-serve. It’s a win for customers, who can find answers to their questions at a time that is most convenient for them. It also frees agents to handle more complex issues, which increases their job satisfaction.” DiMauro is the CEO of Leader Networks, a research and strategy consulting company that helps organizations succeed in social business and online community building.

DiMauro adds that the primary goals for launching customer communities have evolved in recent years. While, in the past, companies were focused on reducing costs or marketing, now communities are closely linked to the organization’s business drivers.

Vanessa DiMauro, CEO, Leader Networks
Vanessa DiMauro, CEO, Leader Networks

“Innovation is one of the strongest and most fruitful areas for organizations launching customer communities,” she states. “Communities are being used to find patentable ideas, to get ahead of new product and service launches, to find problems or to innovate. They’re even being used as a listening tool to understand customer satisfaction.”

She points to mass media and information firm Thomson Reuters as an example. Thomson Reuters has rolled out a suite of customer communities around its legal services. During a recent relaunch of a major software platform, the organization turned to its community for customer feedback on the changes and to help customers through the transition.

“The ability to socialize the changes through the community positively impacted the software’s adoption rate, customer satisfaction and the customers’ comfort with the tool,” she says.


Getting Started: Build on a Solid Foundation

As with any customer-centric initiative, launching an online community requires vision, planning, goals, resources and strategy. The following are a few key elements to create a strong foundation for long-term success.

  • Executive buy-in. Make sure that you have the support of the right internal stakeholders, says DiMauro. “A community is not an island. It not only touches customer support, marketing and product innovation, it reaches across all lines of the business,” she says. “You need crossfunctional buy-in—everyone has to have a little stake in the game.”
  • Clear success metrics that are aligned with business objectives. “Communities need to either accelerate a business process or make something possible that wasn’t easily possible in the past,” DiMauro explains. “When launching a community, you can ensure a positive outcome by aligning it around one or two meaningful business needs with very clear measures and metrics for success.” Once you’ve hit those objectives and developed best practices around those requirements, you can then scale to address other business needs, she adds.
  • A platform that integrates with other channel management tools. If customer service is one of your objectives, focus on delivering a seamless cross-channel experience, advises Cothrel. “You need a platform that can support your customers and that plays in a friendly way with other enterprise infrastructures,” he says.
  • A crossfunctional team. The size and makeup of your team will depend on how much you want to do in your community. Most community teams start with a relatively small team, Cothrel says, and then the team will scale as the community expands its functionality. For example, team expertise may include customer support, product managers, R&D, a content manager, analysts, etc.
  • An experienced community manager. Look for someone with a strong background in community facilitation or management. Keep in mind that there is a difference between social media professionals and community professionals. “Community professionals have a set of disciplines, best practices, frameworks and know-how to scale and align their work to the organization’s needs,” DiMauro says. “Good community professionals are able to ask the types of open-ended questions that help the subject-matter experts articulate why they’re doing something—and do it in a way that helps new customers and learners. When you introduce too much expertise into a community from the company, they make assumptions and use industry lingo. It can run the risk of becoming a dialog of experts to experts without taking into account all levels of education and support.”
  • Community guidelines and rules of engagement. Create a set of guidelines and rules that customers must observe, such as be respectful, don’t spam, respect other people’s privacy, don’t harass, etc. Make sure that customers agree to the guidelines when they join. “You also will need processes on the back end for what to do when a customer breaks the rules,” says Cothrel. “Successful communities think through all types of scenarios before launch.”

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