Communities — Faddish Add-on or Core Support Offer?

Many thanks to Steve Desaulnier for suggesting this topic.

I remember working with primitive versions of support communities (we did not call them communities!) in the eighties but they were exotic support offerings; back then, the core support offering was phone support…  Now that communities have become much more mainstream, as well as more functional, can they claim a central place in B2B support? (The ship has sailed for B2C.)

Some vendors are using communities exclusively for certain types of support

I have a few clients who are using communities instead of 1:1 assisted support. A couple have done away with any kind of 1:1 support and are handling all technical issues through  communities. Others are pushing the resolution of low-priority cases to communities. Granted, these represent a tiny proportion of B2B vendors, but they demonstrate that communities can function as major support channels.

Younger customers respond well to community support

While middle-age customers tend to hang on to 1:1 support, younger folks are much more open to community support.  Generational pressure is certainly in favor of communities.

But legacy customers can embrace communities, too

Customers with legacy products tend to be older (strike 1 against community usage), they have more proprietary investment in their implementation, which means they expect more privacy with their support requests (strike 2) and they are used to 1:1 support (strike 3). Still, they respond well to carefully-tended communities, especially if they can see proof of vendor endorsement of the answers. And they understand that certain types of questions (a la “Is anyone out there doing X with the product?”) yield better answers in communities than through standard support cases.

Social support is not a replacement for communities 

Communities are often discussed in the same breath as support via social channels like Twitter. But how many B2B customers would request support via Twitter? And it seems that social support is often a reaction to horrible support via the standard channels rather than progress towards a better experience: fix your standard channels before leaping into social support.

Social support may establish itself as a new support channel, but communities meet a different need and are here to stay.

Communities can, and should be, the core of the support website

For historical and technical reasons, the support community often lives in a separate home, only loosely linked to the main support website. This is a mistake: communities should be a star attraction on the landing page of support websites, and fully integrated into the search function. Encourage users to start their visits with a search, which accesses the knowledge base, community, documentation, online training options, even the customer’s own cases in one fell swoop.

That first search often occurs outside the website, and that’s just fine — except that users often search outside because the search functionality on the website stinks! If you can provide not just a strong search functionality but a custom, filtered search environment (filtered by the customer’s assets) on the website, users will get better results from inside.

Communities can only become core if well-tended

Vendors who bemoan the low usage of their communities are usually guilty of benign neglect, if not aggressive neglect. Benign neglect means that there is one lone individual valiantly trying to keep the community afloat, begging the support team to please lend a hand. Aggressive neglect means that the platform is allowed to sit there, waiting for an elusive group of peer users to make the community work. Both are absurd approaches: if you want the community to be the core support offer, you must assign resources to posting interesting information, facilitating online meetups, and answering threads within a reasonable timeframe. If assisted support gets all the resources, customers will quickly figure out that logging a case is the fastest way to get help.

What’s your experience with communities? Do you see them as central to the support experience? Please share in a comment.