Customer Communities: A Starring Role in the Customer Journey


The following is a guest post from Susan Hash, Editor of Contact Center Pipeline.

Digital marketing experts say that it’s important to be in all the places where your customers are searching for information about your products and services. However, if your goal is to drive engagement and retention, cultivating your own branded community can offer more value for both customers and the business.

Online communities have been in use by the high-tech industry for decades—going as far back as 1980 with CompuServe’s CB Simulator online chat service. While, in the past, the primary goals for launching customer communities focused on marketing or reducing costs, today’s communities are closely linked to an organization’s business drivers. Vanessa DiMauro sees them becoming an essential function for businesses in the next few years.

“Up to 60% of inquiries and business decisions are made without first contacting the organization,” she says. “Customers use search, they Google, they talk to peers, they visit websites. Communities have an opportunity to play a starring role in the beginning of the customer journey. What is better from a prospective customer’s viewpoint than seeing how an organization interacts with its customers?” DiMauro is the CEO of Leader Networks (www.leadernetworks.com), a research and strategy consulting company that helps organizations succeed in social business and online community building.

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 Joe Cothrel, chief community officer at Lithium Technologies (www.lithium.com). “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.”

3 Basic Principles for Long-term Success

In addition to creating a strong foundation prior to launching your community, the following are recommendations for ensuring its long-term success, from online community expert Rob Howard, vice president and general manager, Social Communities, Verint Enterprise Intelligence Solutions (www.verint.com/communities).

Authentic participation. “We encourage all of our customers to be authentic as they participate in the community—to be themselves,” Howard explains. “Do simple things like updating their profiles, because at the end of the day, we’re all striving to create the relationships around the story that we’re telling in these communities.”

Create unique and valuable content. Online communities are a great place for customers to ask questions about products, services, problems and concerns, but it shouldn’t be limited to those types of discussions. “Think of it as a place where customers can post unique information that they may not share in other ways,” he says. For example, if the R&D team has an idea for a new product, the community offers a perfect opportunity to share that information and solicit their feedback, whether it’s with the entire community or a select set of customers.

Recognize customer contributions. When a customer offers a suggestion, make sure that you complete the feedback loop with a response and recognition of the individual’s contribution. “Recognition is an incredibly important part of the success of a community,” Howard says. “It can come in the form of acknowledgment through a reply or through gamification, where customers have the ability to earn badges and earn recognition for sharing their expertise within the community.”