When social networking and collaboration tools and media first emerged as a cultural phenomenon, many companies had a predictable reaction: ignore a new form of communication that, at first glance, could not be influenced, much less controlled.
However, as social media channels have matured, the most progressive brand stewards recognized that embracing social networks and collaboration tools can enhance customers’ relationships with a brand, and be an invaluable resource for serving those customers better.
Social media’s role in the knowledge economy is evolving rapidly, both within and external to an organization. Let's look at the best practices that can help companies to embrace social media, harvest knowledge from the conversations in their user communities, and apply that knowledge to deliver better customer service:
1. Recognize and reward contributions from the user community.
2. Promote community conversations into knowledge assets.
3. Integrate discussion forums into a seamless support experience.
4. Allow customers to self-direct how they participate in the community.
5. Moderate by exception.
Best Practice 1: Recognize and reward contributions from the user community.
When customers engage with the discussion forums on your support portal, they join a community, just like any other social network. Online communities thrive on recognition and reward. With discussion forums, recognition takes on added importance because the contributions from the community have potential to add value well beyond the forums themselves. Finding high-value contributors, recognizing their efforts and encouraging continued participation is essential to leveraging user-generated content for customer service.
Recognizing individuals’ contributions to the forums often identifies the relevant information critical to resolving customer issues. Participation in these community conversations often exposes developing trends and needs that feed into product and service enhancements.
The challenge, of course, is volume. Many discussion threads will yield few insights that can be repurposed.
The answer lies in reputation models and ratings systems that allow community participants, including company moderators, to rate or otherwise identify high-value content and translate those ratings into a points program that build a reputation for each contributor. As points accrue and reputation grows, "experts" are recognized and granted additional functionality on the forums. Over time, valued contributors are promoted to higher status levels.
You can complement recognition with tangible reward programs to further convey status and deepen the customer’s brand experience.
Best Practice #2: Promote community conversations into knowledge assets.
Reputation models can serve another function. As participants build reputation, you may grant them the right to recommend solutions from forum threads, in essence extending the reach of the company moderators, and permitting the most valued community participants to help determine which content can be harvested into more structured knowledgebase content.
This content can then be exposed to the company’s call center agents and published on the company’s support websites. The "expert"-recommended solution would trigger a workflow to ensure the appropriate parties validate the solution information and rework it into the appropriate formats. It is not uncommon for companies to then withhold broader publication to the Web until the new knowledge content has achieved a reuse count in the call center or high access count in the forums.
Community conversations are not always external-facing. Many companies use discussion forums and other collaboration tools within the enterprise to foster communication and knowledge sharing across groups that might otherwise be disconnected.
For example, problem escalation processes may be managed entirely through collaborative forums. Agents may pose the unsolved problem on an internal forum that reaches across support tiers and geographies. Relevant experts, which may include individuals outside of the support organization, are automatically alerted (via topic subscriptions) and directed to the conversation, where they collaborate to resolve the issue. Managing escalations through forums potentially involves more individuals than a phone escalation, and the discussion thread provides the content that can be harvested into a solution article. As above, participation can be encouraged with incentives tied to a dynamic reputation model that awards points based on issue complexity, timeliness of response, reuse counts and any number of other variables.
Best Practice #3: Integrate discussion forums into a seamless support experience.
Collaboration goes beyond the facilitation of conversations. To be truly transformational for the company, the knowledge emanating from those conversations must be captured and presented external to the forums themselves.
Customers who visit a company’s website to resolve a problem will typically take one of three actions: they will submit a service request for the problem, often through email; or they will search the knowledgebase for information to resolve the problem on their own; or they will search the discussion forums to validate they are not alone in having the problem and to find solutions to that problem. They may do all three. Companies should endeavor to provide a seamless support experience, regardless of which path a customer chooses. One way to do this is to incorporate relevant discussion forum content throughout the experience.
Customers that search the knowledgebase for answers should be presented with relevant discussion topics, specifically those threads that have been marked as solutions by the original poster or moderator.
And those customers who go direct to the discussion forums should be presented with relevant knowledgebase articles when they search the forums. Visitors who search discussion forums should be presented with both discussion forum content and solution articles from the knowledgebase as part of the search results.
Posting a new question to the forum will automatically trigger a semantic search on existing knowledgebase content which may then deflect the topic from even being posted. This could be a particularly effective mechanism for addressing the duplication problem common in discussion forums. And if the knowledge content that deflects the intended post originated from a discussion thread in the first place, you are presenting harvested knowledge in formats that are both accessible to, and consumable by, the people you are trying to serve.
Even if the customer goes directly to the portion of the site where he can either submit a service request through an online form, or initiate a chat session with an agent, the initial problem description can trigger a search across all knowledgebase and forum content, returning potential solutions before the email is sent, or the chat session is joined by an agent effectively eliminating a costly interaction with an agent.
Taken one step further, discussion forum threads represent an ideal opportunity to present targeted online marketing or other relevant information, such as available product upgrades. Every customer support agent or customer service representative would cross-sell or upsell a customer engaged on the telephone; online, the same rules can be applied to questions posed to the knowledgebase and posted to the discussion forums.
This level of seamlessness is consistent with best practices for any kind of collaborative knowledge management. The ultimate goal is to deliver a consistent customer experience that spans all interaction channels, from phone support to Web self-service to discussion forums and beyond.
Best Practice #4: Allow customers to self-direct how they participate in the community.
The rapid evolution of social media has created new expectations for personalization and flexibility in the way people interact with online content. Users expect "anywhere access" (including mobile access from devices of all kinds) to contextually relevant information through methods of their choosing such as email subscriptions, RSS feeds, shared bookmarks, saved history and more.
Applying granular levels of personalization in collaborative knowledge environments encourages customer participation simply by making desired information more accessible. In customer service scenarios where users are more directed and specific with their objectives, every second saved boosts customer satisfaction with the support experience.
Suggest topics to your users, based on the products they use, and interests they have identified in the past. Save "My Topics" list for user-initiated discussions and highlight which threads have been updated since the user’s last visit, eliminating the need to manually check the site for new posts. Allow the user to define email alerts to content subscriptions to notify the subscriber when new responses are posted. Extend subscriptions across discussion forums and the knowledgebase, and allow flexibility to subscribe by topic or content category, by author and by discussion.
Provide custom RSS feeds for each subscription, and for searches containing specific phrases or keywords. Track user participation in the forums and maintain an access history so customers can quickly revisit forums and topics that interested them in the past, and highlight which information has been read, not read, or posted new since the last visit.
Focus not on how to push content to your customer community, but more on how to enable that community to pull the information they need in the way that makes the most sense to each individual participant.
Best Practice #5: Moderate by exception.
Even as social media has become more widespread and integrated into popular and corporate culture, brand stewards’ fear of potential damage persists. Influence and control remains a concern for most large organizations. But moderating and reviewing every post before it’s published on a discussion forum is not only resource-intensive; it robs users of the very value of the collaborative knowledge environment.
Finding the right balance will vary by company, but in general, to ensure a vibrant and collaborative community, organizations should moderate by exception, e.g., allowing users to post and publish freely, with moderators receiving notices from users reporting abuse, or from filters that identify inappropriate or undesirable behavior, such as mentions of a competitor or the use of objectionable or inflammatory language.
Reputation models, in particular, can help companies achieve that balance between freedom and control, by assigning more rights and functionality to users that have earned the trust of both the community and the company. Advanced search technology can add more power to the filtering mechanism by allowing companies to search on specific concepts so even if there is not a direct keyword or phrase match, semantic analysis will identify discussions that may be objectionable.
Moderating a community by exception, coupled with the ability to ban users, unpublish or edit posts or replies, or close forum topics, creates a positive environment that supports both customers’ need for fast, easy knowledge sharing, and companies’ need for an online community that reflects appropriate values and behavior.
Taken together and implemented correctly, these best practices will help you develop an online community that extends a company’s knowledge culture beyond its own walls, and into the domain of customers, improving customer service and reinforcing brand affinity.