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What if we build an online community and customers just use it to say bad things about us 

Any company adopting an online community has had this fear. Opening your community to your customers, and even prospects, can feel like you’re handing them pitchforks to use against you. It’s scary to think they might be right outside your digital door ready to attack.  

However, I’m here to give you a different perspective. In today’s digital world, hiding from feedback doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, or that you won’t hear about it. Customers will find other ways to be heard, whether through social media, third-party review sites like Capterra or G2 Crowd, or angry calls and emails.  

If you create a space for customers to connect with each other and with you, you’re giving them the opportunity to offer direct feedback, positive or negative. As you would on social channels, you have a chance to respond and show them how you’re meeting their needs in an online community.  

Don’t fear the feedback you may receive, see it as an opportunity to build customer loyalty and deepen trust. 

Resource: What is an Online Community?

Creating a Space for Customer Feedback Drives Loyalty  1. You can build trust through transparency.  

Communicating with customers and actively seeking their feedback on processes and product roadmaps are key to transparency. While a strategy like this may require you to tear down walls and address concerns in your company, the positive results are real. 

Simply put, transparency builds trust. If your customers know you’re listening, being open, and working with their feedback, it will go a long way. In today’s digital world, your end users are seeking clear communication and hiding is no longer the solution.  

2. You own the conversation. 

When customers provide feedback in a digital space that you own, you can position and represent your company in a positive way. You have an opportunity to frame the conversation and use their feedback to benefit their customer experience.  

If they take their conversations elsewhere (and they will), you have no control over that. More importantly, you lose the opportunity to get insight.   

Tip: If you’re worried about the outside world seeing your problems, you can make your community private for customers. Consider that customer complaints on social media are already public. The more you can direct the conversation, the better.

3. You know how to grow. 

Your community creates (and fosters) direct communication between you and your customer base. This is essential to understand their needs, how they talk about your offerings, and identify pain points so you can be proactive in delivering the best customer experience.

Harvard Business Review points out that disruption is not caused by new technology – it’s caused by unhappy customers. If you can understand and harness that disruption before they turn to another channel, you’ll be closer to surviving the disruption.

Let’s count the ways this helps you grow: 

  • Improve your product offerings. Your customers are telling you what they want. Realistically, you may not always be able to make every item happen, but you have a deeper understanding of their real business needs, which can guide your product roadmap. 
  • Improve how customers feel about you. You can improve the customer experience in different ways but being open to feedback and transparent communication is going to build genuine relationships between you and your customers.
  • Improve market placement. Your customers’ feedback is golden. As you improve your product and build a loyal customer base, you’re fortifying yourself against the competition.
Create an Action Plan 

These are empty words unless you have a plan to address customer feedback. If negative feedback goes unaddressed by your staff in the community, it reflects poorly on your company. By creating a communication flow to address feedback of any type, within a certain timeframe, you start to build that trust with your customers.

If possible, have a system in place they can use to suggest improvements to your product and where others can upvote. Ensure that your company follows up and lets them know if improvements are being implemented or not, and, if possible, why.

Resource: 3 Lessons from a Unicorn [How to Harness Brand Feedback to Drive Brand Growth + Success]

It’s Your Chance to Shine 

At the end of the day, remember you aren’t just responding to one complaint or one person, you’re creating a response for all the other customers reading and engaging in your community. Take that opportunity to shine instead of lurking in the shadows. A community allows you to build trust in a big way with larger impacts than that one vocal customer.

Don’t let the pitchforks prevent you from building a community. Put on your armor, open the gate, and head out into the world. The pitchforks will always be there, it’s all about how you react.

Download the free success kit below to take advantage of our latest Customer Success resources. 

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Once upon 1995, Lisa Loeb released a song that includes the lyric, “You say I only hear what I want to.” I am telling you this (not only because the song is stuck in my head) but because it might serve you to ask yourself if you are being selective about the customer feedback coming your way. When you peruse customer discussions in your online community, how do you react?

Are you only hearing what you want to, or do you know how to actually hear what your customers (both happy and dissatisfied) have to say? Tougher question: Are you even asking for customer feedback?

There is a clear distinction between simply hearing someone, and active, engaged listening (especially when you’re responding to discussions posts within your online customer community or interacting with folks at live events). Alas, it all starts with y o u, yes, you.

In this piece we’ll tap into the three levels of listening: internal listening, focused listening, and global listening.

Why? Because customers will get frustrated, annoyed, or feel like their time isn’t valued if your organization is distracted or tuning them out when they’re trying to communicate. When distracted listening happens in your community, it can make your members or customers feel like they don't matter, when what you really want is for them to feel truly valued.  

Listening to your members or customers and actually hearing what they say is critical. Not only will they feel validated and inspired to contribute more, but you’ll learn what makes them tick. This is invaluable – focused listening will help you cater to them and create better products.

The 3 Levels of Listening: Become a Better Listener + Leader

Odds are you think you’re a good listener (both in and out of the workplace). But the truth is, although we often take listening for granted, we’re not necessarily good at it. We’re too caught up in our own stresses, ideas, and thoughts to truly pay attention.

Luckily, there are proven ways to become a better listener. Many of these methods are derived from leadership and executive coaching tactics – which makes sense, since they listen professionally.

In a lot of ways, becoming a better listener involves breaking a bad habit letting your mind wander, making assumptions, biting your fingernails, so onand forming a new habit.

First, you need to define what the bad habit and good habit look like. In this case, what does bad listening look like and what does good listening look like? Next is to become aware of when the bad habit creeps into your listening and you need to switch.

The “levels of listening” is one coaching method that could help you break your bad habit and start a good habit. This method categorizes listening into three levels, starting with surface level and distracted to more focused and aware.

If you can tap into these distinctions on your own, your listening and understanding will improve within your community – making your customers feel supported and giving you more insight.

Level One: Internal Listening

Let’s be honest – in our day-to-day lives, we’re often at this level. Internal listening is self-directed. We hear what people say, but their words are often clouded by our own inner monologue, feelings, opinions, and judgments.

An example: when you tell someone a story and they cut you off saying, “Oh, something exactly like that happened to me” and proceed to tell you all about it. Or, perhaps worse, their eyes glaze over and they check their phone while you’re talking. (This kind of listening has its social place, like when you’re out with friends or making the rounds at a cocktail party.)

But if you read through discussions in your online customer community and post comments or engage when you are operating at this level, your judgment could be clouded and your responses might not align appropriately. You have to boost engagement with a clear mind.

If you see a question and immediately think, “That’s a dumb question, who would ask that?” you’re probably at this level of listening, letting judgment cloud understanding.

If that’s the case, you may appear off-putting to members because of bias or missing insights. If customer success is one of your initiatives (and it should be), this isn’t where you want to be.

PS: Don’t get it twisted. You should absolutely tap into personal experience to feed your discussion responses, when it is relevant and helpful but it’s important to do this from level two, when you are first focused on understanding the intentions behind your customer’s outreach.

Level Two: Focused Listening

If you want to truly hear what your customers or members have to say, this is the level you should be operating at when you communicate. Focused listening draws on intuition and concentrated interpretation to be effective.

On your journey to becoming a more effective listener, be cognizant of trying to achieve this level when doing activities such as:

  • Scrolling through discussion posts/polls in your online community
  • Interacting with customers in person at events
  • Engaging in a phone call, virtual meeting, etc.

If you typically feel distracted in those scenarios, you might be stuck in level one: internal listening.

To level up: Take a breather, close out extra and/or irrelevant tabs you have open on your web browser, put your phone in airplane mode out of sight, and set an intention to tame your inner monologue and focus when you are digesting customer feedback or content within your community. Shift to an external focus rather than associating everything with your own situation, and remember that all customer feedback gives you the opportunity to improve - so, don’t fret.

Pay attention to the ideas and intentions of the customers trying to communicate with you. Turn off your judgment – no question is a dumb question – and look at the discussions with an open mind. Do you have the opportunity to share knowledge? Can you offer any resources? You can maintain an acute awareness into customer needs by remembering you’re a consumer, too. If you were in your customer’s position, how would you hope someone would respond to you?

This focused level of listening is a powerful tool since you won’t always hear what you want or expect to hear – but you hear your customer’s truth, the meaning behind their engagement.

That deeper understanding will increase your community knowledge and understanding, allowing you to better assess and support customer needs.

For example, when beauty brand Glossier received some online criticism that the color range of their product line wasn’t adequately catering to the needs of women of color, they could have listened with a level one attitude and said, “Tough. We already offer so many beautiful shades - there isn’t a need. Why must people complain?” OR they could’ve done what they did: launch an expanded 12-shade range for its concealer and skin tint in question, along with an online shade finder tool.

The result? This startup achieved full-blown unicorn status.

Read Glossier’s Success Story | 3 Lessons from a Unicorn: How to Harness Customer Feedback to Drive Brand Growth & Success

Level Three: Global Listening

Global listening means tuning into the body language, mood, and energy of the person speaking. Global listening is the most active level because the listener is not only focused and in tune with what they are hearing, but the impact of the environment around them.

Since your community is virtual, this level can be tricky. You can’t exactly key into whether or not your customer speaking online is shifting, sweating, weirdly calm, or just normal. You can’t pick up on the usual cues one might deduce from one’s body language, breathing, or surroundings.

Rather than chalking global listening up to a loss, take into consideration the climate of your customer community as a whole, the context of the comment in the discussion at hand, etc. Is the comment in line with how that person normally acts, or do they seem harsher?

Communication is often about more than just words, so being aware of the larger context gives you better understanding of where your customers or members are coming from. In person at your customer conference or other events, tap into global listening by maintaining a keen awareness of your senses and environment as you communicate with your customers.

All Ears? Companies Who Listen & Act On Customer Feedback Thrive

Really, in all of this, it’s important to set aside your prejudices and preconceived notions. In the end, does it matter what you think of the conversation? An online community is useless to your organization if you only hear what you want to.

The only thing more useless? Truly hearing and digesting valuable customer feedback… then doing nothing about it.

You need to listen to what’s actually being said, even if you don’t like it. And then you need to address it in a timely, focused, respectful manner. A huge piece of listening to your customers is actually making changes, which isn’t always in the hands of the person fielding the feedback.

Don’t let valuable feedback fall on deaf ears, even if you’re not in the right department to address it. Escalate it to someone who can. Those realizations take some work, but will help you shape your organization and product into what your customers want, not what you think they want. If you do that, both you and your customers will be happier in the end.

Aside from engaged listening, there are several ways you can support your customers on their journey with your organization. Take a look at the resources in our free Customer Support Success Kit below to learn more.

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Do you have a Customer Advisory Board (CAB) or customer advisory council? A lot of software companies do. It’s one of those boxes that you check because you know it’s a best practice.

But something else that’s common is when companies check the CAB box just to have one, but don’t end up doing much with it (likely because of the workload it takes to manage). Rather than becoming the product and customer experience-changing entity that it has the potential to be, many CABs go into hibernation, never to be heard from again.

It’s time to change that. It’s time to mobilize your CAB for action.

Why? Your CAB is key to unlocking benefits across departments, from customer support, product, your executive team, customer success, and customer marketing. (Yeah, this is why it’s such a “must” to have a CAB in the first place.) And it’s really of no use to you if you’re not using this tool effectively.

I’m here to give you that gentle nudge you needed to really get your CAB up and running. There are three main benefits a software company can get from a CAB.

1. Customer Advisory Boards Help Your Product Meet Customers’ Real Needs

A CAB is generally an assortment of hand-picked customers who are interested in giving you feedback about your product. They may share their perspective as a user of your software, or perhaps they’ll have more to say about the role your product plays at their organization.

Often, companies find these customers by monitoring who’s actively engaged and already problem-solving on their online community. But wherever you find these customers, their insight is extremely productive for your company. Real users of your product are giving you real, constructive feedback about the direction your product is headed and how it works now.

This is an excellent way to refine your product and make sure it’s meeting your customers’ real needs.

“You need to have a feedback loop from your customers in order to keep your product relevant to the marketplace, and the online community really helps us do that. Customers also want to engage with the product team. They want to know where the product is going, what they’re doing, and they want to have an impact. That’s their first desire.” Susan Reed, former Director of Customer Success, Fluxx ( CMX)
Tip: Create year-round value by managing your Customer Advisory Board with an online community.

You hear a lot of advice that you can only make a CAB work if you are meeting in person, and the struggle tends to be keeping the value consistent between meetings. Yes, keeping up the value and meeting in person is essential, we agree. BUT…

If you can give the customers on your advisory board a way to easily exchange ideas online, you can achieve both these goals, and significantly increase the value you, and they, are getting from participation. They can connect all the time, on their own time, without you having to pay for flights every time the CAB needs to talk.

Plus? Your staff can listen in to all the conversations they have in the community, getting product feedback year-round instead of just a few times in person. Although your CAB isn’t necessarily a true sample across your customer base, these customers can give you a good read for how your customer base is feeling about you and your product. As your CAB members discuss in your online community, listen in and see their interactions.

Need help on learning how to implement customer feedback? See how Glossier does it.

2. Customer Advisory Boards Create Customer Advocates

Your CAB is your ticket to increasing upsell among your customer base, and not in the way you might be thinking. Your CAB should be utilized for introducing product discussions and presentations, not sales pitches or marketing upsells. (Use your online community for upsell and finding referrals instead.)

What you have is a natural opportunity to create customer advocates, so don’t take it for granted by failing to focus on building a valuable, mutually beneficial relationship with the members of your CAB. Customer Advisory Boards allow you to:

  • Engage customers in an exciting, collaborative way
  • Seek, listen, and implement your customers’ product feedback
  • Introduce new products or updates to customers early on (allowing them time to explore features)
  • Connect customers to their highly-involved peers + your staff to help them succeed

Your CAB members are already bought into the product by being part of the development process. So, when you release something new to all your customers, your CAB members already know why they like it and how to use it. This is instrumental to promoting the success of your product and even encouraging upsell among your broader customer base.

You’re mobilizing this small group of customers to go out there and sing your product’s praises (or bring essential feedback to your attention).

Trust us, your support team will thank you for this…

3. Customer Advisory Boards Lighten Your Support Team’s Load

Another big benefit is the reduced burden on your (likely swamped) support team. Again, if CAB members are getting early access to new releases and direct access to your staff, this means they are more experienced than the average customer when it comes to product knowledge, solutions, and updates.

This makes your CAB-members-turned-advocates the perfect candidates to jump in and offer solutions to problems that would otherwise be directed to your support team. Now, when other (potentially newer) customers are asking questions or bringing up issues with a product on your online customer community, your superstar advocates can bring their experience to the table.

Resource: 3 Customer-Focused Benefits of an Online Community

Armed with knowledge, they’re able to effectively respond to community discussions and help other customers solve their problems before the customers submit tickets. This frees up time for your support team to address bigger issues, or simply link customers with questions to a discussion thread.

The best part? Advocates are often eager to respond to those support discussions in your online community because they’ve been there and they know how to help. It’s rewarding for everyone: Your support team, your CAB members, and your other customers.

Learn more about how you can deflect support cases with your online community.

Keep Your Product Relevant in the Marketplace with a Customer Advisory Board

Don’t let the opportunity to source valuable feedback from your customers slip by. Even though a CAB can be a lot of work, it could be totally worth it for your company. And the good news is that an online community can make management of the board a lot easier and provide you with loads more insight.

Want to take advantage of our latest thought leadership content? Check out the resources in our free Customer Success Kit below to learn about how to meet and exceed your customers’ expectations.

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In today's global economy, you're no longer competing with just the businesses in your town. You're competing around the world, and you may offer similar products and services to half a dozen other vendors, maybe more. You need a way to differentiate yourself outside of product and price, which can only be tweaked so much.

Smart businesses that find themselves in this situation turn to customer support as the differentiator.

Excellent customer service and support are highly effective ways to stand out because they also build loyalty among your customers. It will often cause them to select you for renewals and recommend you even if your prices are higher than the competition. Just consider these stats:

  • 95% of global consumers said good customer service is an important influencer of their brand loyalty [Microsoft]
  • 61% have stopped doing business with a company due to poor customer service [Microsoft]
  • 75% of companies believe they’re customer centric, while only 30 percent of consumers agreed [Capgemini]

Clearly, there’s a major divide between perception and a hard reality.

So how do you create a great customer service experience that puts you on the right side of these statistics?

One of the most basic ways is to provide service when others don't, and in a way that others don't. For example, it's nearly impossible to be a world-class customer service provider when your traditional customer support hours are limited. That's where an online customer community comes in.

Let’s look at eight ways that communities can improve your customer support and make your customers more successful, overall.

The Role of Online Customer Communities in Remarkable Customer Service

Online communities are naturally suited to improve customer support. No – it’s not about eliminating your customer support team by replacing it with an online community. The two should work hand in hand.

By giving customers a go-to place to ask questions, help each other and learn, your company can create a support environment that will complement your pre-existing teams, giving them much needed relief and improving their insight into customer problems.

The best type of customer support portal is one that provides options for peer-to-peer support while at the same time allowing users to connect directly to customer service representatives. By creating an online community with both options, you provide a social customer support experience for your customers and help differentiate your brand at the same time.

1. Knowledge Sharing

Not all customer service conversations are about problems. Some customers simply need advice on what new products would best solve their recent problems or the most efficient ways to use a product. Save your support team some time and allow your customers to answer these inquiries for you.

An online community not only publicly documents how to fix problems, it allows fellow customers to offer solutions.

This is incredibly powerful for several reasons:

  • Your customers are in the product and know it differently than you (they may come up with interesting, out of the box solutions your support team never would have suggested)
  • Customers can connect with each other, which creates loyalty and makes your online community just that—a community
  • Letting more people into the conversation doesn’t expose the world to your company’s faults—it opens your customers and company up to more interesting, creative solutions that end up benefiting everyone in the long run

For example, in Higher Logic’s own user group community, HUG, we have community champions who help other customers solve problems they experience or offer creative workarounds to common challenges. They’re a big help to our customer support team and work with them to identify whether issues are isolated or a bug.

By and large, online community fixes this problem by bringing better, more thorough answers to customers at any time of the day.

2. Support Ticket/Case Deflection

Rather than calling or emailing, waiting, explaining the problem and waiting more, customers can first search the community to see if anyone else has had a similar issue. Customers can learn from each other’s past experience through discussions and resource-sharing.

On top of that, your customer support team may be able to link customers to a thread in your online community that fully answers their question. Jama Software uses their customer community in this way.

  • Their ticket volume has continued to go down since launching an online community, even though their customer base has grown. Customers have learned that the most efficient way to find an answer is to search the community first, and then take it to support if they can’t find it.
  • And it makes staff’s lives easier too. 73% of Jama Software’s responding staff have found that many inquiries can be solved by linking their customers to the best resource in their online community.

What about those times when a customer really does need one-on-one support? When those instances come up, you will have the mechanisms—and more time—to properly deal with those issues.

In fact, many online community platforms integrate with support software so a customer can easily create a ticket, sending the entire thread to the support team so they have all the background they need to help.

Giving customers a space to help each other saves your support team time and reduces your support costs overall.

3. User-Generated Resource Manual

Helping one person at a time isn’t efficient for anyone. And that’s what traditional customer service often focuses on.

Think about it—when you help customers through email, phone or social media, you’re almost always helping just one customer at a time. Even if you publicly tweet at a customer, usually only that person sees the tweet.

How many times a day is your support team asked the same question? Or the same types of questions?

When customers seek help on an online community, they contribute to a user-generated, ever-updating, searchable manual. That means any future customer can search within the community, find their question, and follow the thread. As customers help each other by posting questions, answers, ideas, and hacks, they build an owner’s manual for your product.

4. 24/7 Availability

Unlike your support team, an online community never takes a break. If you have customers across the globe or in different time zones, your customers might get an answer faster, improving customer satisfaction. Plus, your customers might log in during the weekend when your support team is gone.

You can also provide resources that help them find the answers they need. Online communities provide an important self-service option that gives customers an opportunity to troubleshoot and solve their problems before coming to support, often saving time.

Tip: Build a resource library

An online community is the perfect place to collect and post your help videos, documents, and frequently asked questions. Establishing and growing this knowledge base is incredibly valuable for customers.

To use this premise in the most effective way, you should have a robust search option built into your online community platform, so that customers can easily find the answers to their questions. Make sure those search results are relevant as well. You need to update content periodically to ensure it still applies to your current products and create new content to support recent product releases.

Jama Software has been able to build a huge knowledge base for their customers:

"Because you can do so much with Higher Logic, we’ve been using it to do things other than support ticket deflection. Our knowledge base has over 250 articles, and we’re continuously adding more. In addition to having private communities for each of our data products, we’re planning to develop a community for our technology partners. The community is also a good place to gather information on our beta products.”

Kristina King, Manager, Technical Support, Jama Software

5. Private Space for Negative Feedback

Many companies—either on their own or at the urging of their customers—are turning to more public forums, like Twitter, to address customer issues. This has forced transparency. Results? Well, they vary – mistakes and missteps can go viral instantly. But if all goes well, companies can gain back customer trust and loyalty.

But customer communities can manage customer service issues while building stronger customer relationships….in private. Yes, you may still have customers fleeing to social media to complain, but you’re more likely to get complaints first on your community, where they know you’ll see their feedback.

An online community is a far more controlled environment with the potential to not only solve problems, but strengthen relationships. It works to truly shape, grow and maintain a community of customers.

6. Product Improvement

As much as customers can help fellow customers out, they can also help your team out. Although your support team knows the product inside and out, they don’t know it the way your customers do (simply because your customers use it to do their jobs).

While you watch customers ask questions and help each other out, look for patterns or interesting solutions. But don't stop there. Take that insight to heart and examine your product for areas of improvement. Your customers are a huge asset for your product team and can show you, without meaning to, where your product team can improve your product.

You can learn an incredible amount about your product and your users by watching their discussions. How do they solve problems? Is there a process that continually stumps people, or a feature that’s constantly being requested? Communities help your customers solve problems and connect with one another.

They also teach you how to read their minds and predict their needs, ultimately leading to a better product.

7. Idea Generation

Anywhere multiple customers come together, such as customer community forums and discussion boards, is bound to generate feedback and suggestions about products, services or designs.

Users often have better ways of doing things or ideas for additional features that can come out in these sections. Those ideas can be very useful in your development process. A customer service portal geared toward innovation gives customers a way to quickly get their ideas to decision makers, who can respond to and act on the best ideas, making those customers feel valued.

8. Customer Advocacy

Rather than hiding hiccups and troubles, an online community not only helps you be transparent about your product, but it’s also a space for your customers to advocate for you. When customers are able to interact with one another, as they do in user group communities, self-described power users or advocates are often eager to share their knowledge and experience.

They can respond to questions about product advantages and common uses in discussion forums. If you have a new product that may help, people in the community can create buzz and interest around the item, making it more likely that other customers will adopt products and services earlier.

Online community users that provide content on best practices and product recommendations are incredibly valuable advocates, so go a step further with this group.

Tip: Start a formal advocacy program

Create an advocacy program that ensures that these loyal customers are the first ones to hear about new products. This also allows them help shape the product through feedback. You might even consider giving them opportunities to buy things first as a perk of being a leader in the online community and advocating for your products.

Help Your Customers Support You with an Online Community

Establish your community as a trusted, efficient support channel so that users can come back to it regularly to ask questions and share helpful insights. Your business should be involved in reviewing those insights, as well as providing useful content of their own in online community libraries. In these conditions, you'll will notice that in addition to engagement, you're also building customer trust, loyalty, and advocacy.

An online community gives your customers a voice that travels right to your ears. Respect that and respond to customer feedback with programs or changes that meet the needs of the broader community. Not only will you be able to deliver better customer service to more customers, but you’ll be able to cut down on support costs and increase customer retention.

We created a Customer Support Success Kit with resources to help you navigate the world of customer support. No email address needed - just visit the page linked below to access the resources in the success kit. 

Editor's note: This post was originally published by Christina Green in April 2016 and has since been refreshed to make sure we're bringing you the latest and greatest. 

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Have you ever spent time with a toddler who is discovering their independence? The moment a growing tyke learns how to do something new, they feel the need to try and do it themselves. There is a certain level of excitability that comes with their newfound independence and fierce determination – not to mention, a common distaste for being told ‘no.’ Sound relatable?

As grown adults in the modern age of tech booms, DIY-everything, and continuously rising customer service expectations, I don’t think we’re that far removed from the demands of a toddler who wants to be in the driver’s seat of their own experiences (and I’m not surprised).

Did you know that 89 percent of U.S. consumers expect brands or organizations to have an online self-service support portal?

A traditional business portal is generally one-size-fits-all, while an online community has the ability to create a more personalized experience for customers. But whether you call it an online customer portal, online community, or knowledge base, the essence is the same – you’re leveraging technology to meet expectations, address the evolving demand for customer self-service options, and improve the overall customer experience (CX) through empowered knowledge sharing and engagement.

Recent years have seen a big shift in customer support as technology rises to meet the evolving demand for customer self-service options, and self-service adoption is projected to keep rising.

Customers want, expect, and often prefer online self-service options to get help and answers.

  • 91% of survey respondents said they would use an online knowledge base if it were available and tailored to their needs (Coleman Parkes for Amdocs)

    • The catch? People are largely only interested in online self-support if it's well-managed, reliable, and accurate

  • 80% of customers say that the experience a company provides is as important as its products and services, with 57% reporting having stopped buying from a company because a competitor provided a better experience (Salesforce)

If you want to support your customers' desire to self-serve while simultaneously increasing loyalty, the creation of a customer portal alone isn't going to get you there – it’s just the beginning. You need an online community platform with support capabilities that increases the all-around customer experience.

When you use online community software, you're not only getting a portal to manage basic transactional data, you’re utilizing a solution to improve customer satisfaction and success on a broader scale. The good news? You’re in a great place to learn more. Keep reading.

Why Do Companies Create Online Customer Portals?

While the reasons your customers use your online portal will vary based on the specific type of interactions they have with your company, there are a few standard drivers behind customer portal strategies and increasing online engagement within the community. Let’s dig in.

1. To Provide Self-Service Options & Reduce Customer Support Costs

Providing self-service options is probably the most obvious reason for creating an online customer support community or client portal. In this robust engagement economy, there are several ways that companies are engaging customers and that customers are demanding to be engaged. An online portal simplifies many of those needs down to a one-stop knowledge base.

Functioning as an exclusive customer-only destination, online customer portals were originally created to manage transactional data, like purchase records, order history, and bill payments. They often included demographic data, like address changes and personal profile information, to reduce the cost of having a customer service representative manually change this information in the company's CRM database or other systems of record for customer data.

Resource: 5 Reasons You Need to Integrate Your Online Community and CRM Today

By allowing your customers or clients the option to track all this information in one place online, you lower the number of calls coming into your call center and may be able to downsize your support overhead.

But it goes beyond that - modern day online communities contribute to overall customer satisfaction (learn more about how to reduce customer support costs the community way). If you provide your customers with value, you’ll benefit, too.

Take it from Jama Software - their online support community serves as a primary knowledge base that customers often reference first for help. Data shows that even when customers do create a formal support ticket, 73 percent of Jama’s responding staff found many inquiries can be solved with ease by linking a customer directly to the best resource on the community.

Case Study: Jama Software's Online Community Success Story

2. To Provide a Convenient Place to Centralize Information & Tools

When your customers need information about your products, you want them to come to your company to find the answers they need first, rather than seeking out information elsewhere.

However, as companies grow, many businesses find themselves sending customers to several different locations online to access support, product, and company information.

This doesn’t lead to happy customers. Thankfully, your online customer portal can centralize information and resources so that customers know where to find what they need - at all times - and can access the necessary tools to solve problems as they arise. And with single-sign-on capabilities, customers have a better user experience when they don't have to sign in multiple places with multiple logins.

By combining all of their needs into a single customer portal, you may see an increase in ongoing customer engagement and satisfaction by improving their customer experience. Online communities can add value to the customer experience in a way that transforms your customers into loyal brand advocates.

3. To Provide Scalable Customer Relationship Management

As you acquire more customers, managing and sustaining your relationships becomes a larger task. An online customer portal enables you to manage customer relationships in a more scalable way, even as you get more customers.

By keeping track of your relationships more efficiently and enabling customers to benefit from the knowledge of your community, you can provide better service and keep your existing customers happy (increasing the likelihood that they’ll advocate for you). More from Jama:

“Our ticket volume has continued to go down since launching a community in 2014, even though our customer base has grown. The tickets that do come in are more technically challenging than they were in the past."

-Kristina King, Jama Software

4 Elements of an Effective Online Customer Portal

Simply providing an online customer portal is not enough - it must be developed and managed well to be useful to your customer base and company. In order to motivate your customers to use your online portal, you need to create an engaging environment that is going to make a difference in their success with your products or services, as well as measurably enhance the behind-the-scenes operations of your organization. Teach them something. Make it a win-win.

WEBINAR RECAP Q&A: The Value of Community in Customer Success

While the exact components of an online customer portal will vary for different companies, here are four common aspects of effective online customer portals to consider when creating yours:

1. Empower Peer-To-Peer Interactions

Exponentially expand your company's ability to answer customer questions in your customer portal by allowing customers to ask questions of other customers. Help them help you.

Your organization will never have all of the answers in its portal. However, you can provide an always-on safety net for your customers by opening up your customer portal into a full online community. Including peer-to-peer community features also helps your business efficiently grow your support knowledge base since all of the historical questions asked and answered are archived for future customers that need support.

The ability to ask and answer questions from other customers humanizes their consumer experience and allows them to feel like a contributing member of your community. By giving your customers the opportunity to forge connections with each other within the "walls" of your online portal, your company can also increase customer retention by helping customers build valuable relationships with each other and your brand.

2. Effective Search Engine Capability

If your online customer portal is meant to be a source of education for your customers, you need to make sure they can access the information they need with ease.

Ideally, your search engine would index all text-based online content and discussions, including the information within the text-based files of your portal. Then, your portal's single search engine will enable your customers to search across all blogs, files, discussions, support documentation, and other information in your web portal.

3. Informed Segmentation

You may have customers using different products. You also have customers at different stages of their use of your product or service. Some are just starting out and others are seasoned experts.

Since not all customers are the same, not all customers need the same information and resources (who would’ve thought?). Recognizing this distinction is critical to customer success, so segmenting your information to make it more relevant and accessible will help people find answers faster and make the value of your online portal more clear to your customer base.

You might need to segment by geographic location, product line, or role in the company. For instance, a CIO needs access to different information than an end user.

PS: If you put your customer community data to work with the power of marketing automation, you can up your segmentation efforts to include more personalized targeting (just another element modern-day consumers expect). The result? Ultimate customer success.

4. Exclusive Customer Information & Updates

To ensure your customers use your online customer portal, run as much of your company communication as possible through the portal. Remember: It’s not just a portal for information, you’re creating a sense of community among your customers. Companies with effective online customer portals make this website the center of the customer communication strategy.

Be sure to balance the use of multi-channel communication (public blogs, email, public social networks, etc) with your need to turn using your customer portal into a habit for your customers.

People won't use the portal to access information if they can get the information elsewhere. If fewer people use and add their answers to your knowledge base, the value of the knowledge base diminishes quickly.

Customers like to feel in-the-know, so providing exclusive information and updates within your community is an essential driver if you want them to recognize the value. Do they know what’s in it for them? Whether the information is product information or company updates, your portal is a great space to connect with your customers and share the latest news.

Online Customer Portal Takeaway: Streamline Self-Support & Improve Customer Success

Having an effective online customer community or client portal not only helps to decrease support costs, but it also gives your customers much-needed access to information and other customers. Since self-service is a popular option in the "I can Google that" era, an online customer portal helps your company control (and have insight into) the flow of information and the access your customers have to solutions. But, it can't be all about cutting costs.

In order to motivate your customers to utilize your portal, you need to make it a worthwhile platform for both them and your organization. Focus on providing real value within your customer community.

Want to learn more? Check out our blog 3 Customer-Focused Benefits of an Online Community and don't forget to download your copy of our eBook below for next steps.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in February 2014 by Joshua Paul. It has since been refreshed to make sure we’re giving you the latest and greatest.

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Today’s preferred customer experience combines support, community, and outreach into one unified platform.

Zenoss has facilitated a user community for over 10 years, becoming the de facto online gathering place for IT Ops customers. Recently, Zenoss enhanced customer experience by revamping its online community – name, brand, and all.

The company prioritized five initiatives:

  • Migrating all existing community discussions and user profiles
  • An open API for its CRM integration
  • Support and other existing solutions
  • User experience and interface
  • Dynamic public and private customer community forums

With these goals in mind, Zenoss relaunched the user community with Higher Logic’s community platform. The new community platform introduced innovative collaboration capabilities, enhanced overall user experience, and provided scalability to support the rapid membership growth.

"Since launching our TechZen User Community on the Higher Logic platform, we’ve seen dramatic membership growth and increased engagement. New capabilities coupled with engagement strategies have helped us gain greater insight into the needs of our customers and the community." - John Boyle, Technology Alliances & Community, Zenoss

Zenoss debuted its new community in April 2017 at its annual conference, GalaxZ, complete with an updated brand and a new crowdsourced community name, courtesy of its Austin roots: TechZen.

The community started with four product forums: two private forums for the advisory board and beta program, one for platform questions and feedback, and one general forum.

We caught up with John Boyle, in charge of technology alliances and community at Zenoss, to learn more about the TechZen launch and how community engagement has grown since the re-launch.

Community Q&A: John Boyle and Zenoss’ TechZen Community

Higher Logic (HL): Congratulations on one year (and counting) with the TechZen Community on Higher Logic! Can you share some highlights?

John Boyle (JB): Thanks! We have some great engagement stats so far. For context, this is the first time we can benchmark interactions and track real community engagement. Our previous system didn’t offer that. If you allow me to brag a little, here’s what TechZen has seen over the last year:

  • Over 3,500 active members worldwide
  • 140% membership and engagement increase

In general, we’re seeing an increase in discussions and library items, with new discussion threads and replies increasing every quarter. Before, it was challenging to drive and track webinar registrations from the community. Now with automation rules, we can send our webinar invitations to the entire community, which immediately increased registrations by 5-10 percent. And that number is increasing!

HL: Why did Zenoss choose Higher Logic for its community relaunch in the first place?

JB: This new platform enables mass collaboration and crowdsourcing. User interactions are important to us – our core values include welcoming customers for life, winning with integrity, and a need for speed – this is how we approach customer service, new opportunities, everything. For us, this was a way for the management team and the whole company to communicate and help with organic interactions.

We also wanted to morph the user community from just conversations about open-source tools to a more collaborative environment where we could offer insight and get feedback from all of our users and partners. We remained true to our roots but opened the conversation to enterprise topics like Zenoss Cloud.

One of our primary requirements beyond features, functions, and price was having a partner who was committed to our success beyond the sale and initial implementation. Hands down, Higher Logic has exceeded our expectations in all areas. Our discussions with the Higher Logic team quickly revealed they were committed, and they have supported us every step of the way.

HL: How did the implementation go?

JB: The entire implementation process was smooth. We had a tight deadline compared to most – eight weeks. Higher Logic easily imported all old instances and existing data, and we didn’t lose a thing. This was a top priority for everyone at Zenoss and in our user community.

HL: Do you have a favorite feature?

JB: As a product person, it’s easy to pick apart a lot of different platforms. But all things considered equal, the best Higher Logic feature is your team. You’re responsive from the top down and back up again. There is a lot of opportunity for input, and you’re agile, like us.

"Using the Higher Logic platform for the TechZen Community gives users and customers a more dynamic way to engage with one another and the Zenoss team. Access to such a broad peer network is a key reason IT professionals choose Zenoss.” - Megan Lueders, Chief Marketing Officer, Zenoss

HL: What techniques do you use to drive engagement and participation in TechZen?

JB: I talked about this at the 2017 Super Forum and Gainsight Pulse 2018, but I like to focus on the “George Bailey Moments” (if you’re familiar with the holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life”), meaning what do you need versus what do you want? We constantly ask ourselves:

  • What do our users really need, and what will give them the maximum benefit?
  • How can we address those needs above and beyond expectations while also implementing other ways to continually improve member experience?

So far, TechZen has proved to be a valuable benefit and resource as a promotional platform, for things like GalaXZ (our annual user conference), webinars (our attendance has increased up to 10 percent with the help of automation rules), new content, and training opportunities.

HL: How does TechZen feed into your product management process?

JB: We couldn’t properly track user activities within our previous tools, so that’s been a big improvement. The platform’s privacy features enable our community members to select what they wish to share with different group segments, to participate in private beta product discussions, and even to join customer advisory forums.

For anyone doing agile development, especially SaaS solutions, this is a big deal! We are able to get timely and critical product input proactively from our customers, which reduces support calls to us after the product has gone to production. Customers can try new features and give usability feedback early in the process. Higher Logic enables us to engage customers proactively as part of the development process, which is huge!

HL: What’s in the future for TechZen? How are you pushing the envelope in customer success for the Zenoss user group?

JB: Our customers-for-life and community focus has always been a primary reason people work with Zenoss. Moving to a new platform was a big step forward, and this platform is so rich in capabilities that we have just scratched the surface. This upcoming year, we are exploring deeper integrations with Higher Logic into other key technologies already in use at Zenoss. And using a hosted SaaS solution means we can focus on what we do best versus taking up time and resources managing an in-house solution.

"The choice of our new community platform was key in enabling our users to innovate and overcome challenges by leveraging the collective intelligence of the group. With the level of complexity in modern IT environments, having immediate and unlimited access to this intelligence enhances the speed we serve our customers.” - Brian Wilson, Chief Customer Officer, Zenoss

Online community isn't just a fancy tech tool to add to your stack - it's an engagement platform with result-creating potential. Aberdeen's 2018 report, Online Communities: How to Improve the Customer Experience and Boost Financial Success, looks at the impact community creates for corporations. Check it out!


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Online communities are becoming more mainstream every day, with many companies using them for customer support and retention. No question, they’re great for that.

However, there is another HUGE benefit you can get from your online community – increased sales. Are you ready to learn how? Here we go:

3 Ways Your Online Community Can Increase Sales 1. Attract Prospects

With the advent of marketing automation systems, companies are harnessing the power of the internet to draw customers to their site. To do that, you need content. You can create an eBook or offer a webinar to start fulfilling your content needs, but that takes time, and if you can’t do it yourself, it takes money.

An online community can help you cut down on the amount of time and money that goes into creating content while bringing more qualified prospects to your site. Many companies successfully attract prospects through the community by exposing certain discussion content to the public.

For B2B companies, there may be some discussions in your community that you don’t want the world to see; that's normal, but usually there are some that would be just fine to expose. By sharing these discussion forums, you have instant and evergreen search engine optimization (SEO).

Once they’re public, the discussions can be indexed by search engines and found by prospects. They may even be better optimized than your marketing content, because the way a user asks a question in Google might be closer to the way users ask a question in a discussion forum.

Harness these constantly growing forums to help attract prospects to your site. As they show up via search, have prospects fill out a quick form to get limited access to your online community. This way you capture a lead and you can move on to the next step: tracking their activity.

2. Track Prospect Activity

If you’re not a web tracking/marketing automation user, the problem with many web forms is you can only see that one action they have taken. They downloaded an eBook, great – but what did they do after that? Did they search on a related topic? Did they go to an industry forum to ask a question?

The problem is, you don’t know. When you allow a prospect into your online community, you can serve up additional content a prospect may be interested in around your products and services. You can even give them access to a general forum to ask questions, and you can give them the ability to search your content.

When they do all of this in your online community, you can see it all! In fact, if you send the activities to your CRM, then you can contact prospects based on their actions in the community. This is a powerful way to be a resource for prospects and gain greater visibility into their buying process as well as the questions they ask when looking for your products and services.

Bonus: If you use marketing automation software in tandem with your online community software, you can use the data provided by your community to personalize a drip campaign for prospects. Marketing automation provides you with even more data through web tracking and helps you send a sequence of emails timed exactly right to increase the probability of conversion.

3. Identify Upsell Opportunities

Once a prospect becomes a customer, your online community can be a tremendous source of information for them. They can download product documentation, ask questions of other customers, and provide feedback to you on your product offerings to help speed up innovation. All of these things help reduce your support costs.

These actions also identify upsell opportunities. Since the community is tracking everything the customer is searching, downloading, and reading, all this information becomes very valuable to your sales team.

If a customer downloads product documentation on a product they don’t have – sales should be alerted.

If a customer start asking questions in a discussion forum on the benefits of upgrading their product version – sales should be alerted.

When you have your online community integrated with your CRM, upsell opportunities are easy to identify.

Combining Customer Support and Sales in Your Online Community

When you consider both the support AND increased sales benefits that an online community can offer, it is easy to see why companies are implementing online communities in droves.

Your sales team will benefit from the increased insights that online community provides across the sales cycle. Prospects can see your thought leadership through the community, and you can see their activity in the community, helping you understand how to appeal to their interests. And once they’re customers, your online community can encourage them to buy with you again.

A community can enhance your customer's experience throughout the customer journey. To learn more about how to use your community at every stage, download our eBook, Customer Life Cycle Management.  

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How do you convince an exec that community is worth it when ROI is long-term? Who should be responsible for managing a community?

Mark Ace recently discussed the value of online community in customer success in a Higher Logic webinar. He answered the questions you had about ROI, community management, customer support, and more.

Q: Who should manage community? Does it need to be a full-time role, or can it be split among client success professionals?

Mark Ace: The most successful communities almost always have dedicated community managers, and it’s something we strongly advocate. We practice this within our own customer community, HUG. So whether that's one person, or a team of people, you want somebody who can pay constant attention to the community. 

Communities don't run themselves. They're like a garden, and they need to be tended. You want to continually bring in best practices and promote engagement, which is hard to do without someone or some people who are totally focused on that task. Having committed resources will help you get maximum value out of your community.


Q: How do you use community to find customer advocates or to increase customer advocacy?

MA: You’ll most likely have a category of customers who want to find ways to participate, raise their hands, or volunteer. You'll want to nurture that instinct, and identify people who are most valuable players and then scale their engagement. Find ways for them to add more, for example, by becoming speakers, or participating in testimonials on behalf of your business. A good community platform should provide a lot of tools for that.

You can set up gamification, which lets people score points based on their engagement levels. You can track and run campaigns in the community based on response and success rates. Also, you can take it further by making it social with leaderboards and badges. If you’re using automation rules in your platform, you can use that tool to create targeted communication elements to those people to help them advance to another level.


Q: How do you convince a sales executive of the power of community when ROI is long-term?

MA: One of the primary benefits of community is the opportunity to reduce churn. Decreasing churn by just a few percentage points pays off in terms of lifetime revenue, and that’s an ROI argument your sales executive will understand. Communities help customers participate in the products they buy from you and help them become lifetime customers.

Another benefit in community is improved cross-sales or up-selling to your existing customer base. Communities allow customers to observe their peers using your other products and services, do research, see success stories, and express interest that the sales team can follow up on.


Q: What volume of support calls and tickets are reduced from community?

MA: The Aberdeen Report suggests that companies with an active community of customers see 33 percent lower support costs (and those who don’t use community observe a 2.7 percent worsening, or increase, in cost). There's value there just in terms of crowdsourcing and creating a knowledge base from community participation.


Q: Do communities normally reside in support, because customers are seeking issue resolution?

MA: If you're using a crowd-sourcing model where customers answer each other’s questions, it may divert tickets to a support platform. This can happen organically, or you can tune communities to this purpose. But customer support and success are separate functions (although connected). Support tends to be more issue-based and transactional, whereas success is more strategic and long-term. A community is an investment into the long-term life and health of the customer. So, they're slightly different focuses and probably under different management structures, but certainly connected.


Q: Is it possible to structure communities with different tiers of customers within the community? We have segments of customers who would benefit from interacting, but others, not so much.

MA: Companies commonly segment and structure their online community around their lines of business and customer interest. You may also want common areas for announcements or new product releases for all customers to see. The platform you use should provide the roles and security settings and permissions needed to customize that visibility on your end.

You want customers to be able to customize what they see on their end, as well, so they can manage the amount of communication they receive and the kind of input they're seeking. Having those configuration abilities available supports the customer model in your community.


Q: What indicators from the community do you use to determine customers at risk of churn?

MA: Churn is certainly one of the things we look for in our health scoring. We watch engagement with the community platform closely, as it’s a key indicator of customer success. If we see a severe drop in usage and engagement, that’s a red flag that triggers an action for the Customer Success Manager and will also show up in the health score.

Another churn warning can be changes in key staff at the customer site. If community engagement drops off, we can look at the usage levels for the community managers and administrators. If any of those key people have moved to other jobs, we can offer training and orientation for the new people and help the community maintain its momentum and value.

Sometimes the problem is easily remedied because we find out that a key community manager went on sabbatical for a month. That points out the importance of community managers, and how important they are to keeping those communities healthy. Lack of engagement with a product or survey is a great indicator of the risk of churn.


To listen to the full webinar with Mark and learn more about how community plays a role in customer success, click the button below.

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You’re shopping online. You put something in your cart, leave the website, and then a few minutes later, you get an email that says, “Oops, looks like you left something behind.” Have you ever had this experience? Turns out, it’s not Big Brother spying on you – it’s just marketing automation at work. An abandoned cart campaign is a perfect example of how marketing automation can be used to create a great user experience.

Tell me more, you say? Well, first, you probably have an account with the company, so that’s how they have your email address. Through the web tracking their marketing automation software provides, they use cookies (not the chocolate chip type) that track what pages you visited and when you added something to your cart. When you abandoned the purchasing process, you prompted a marketing automation rule they had created that said, “If a customer puts an item in the cart and a certain amount of time passes without the transaction being completed, then send them this email reminding them to buy,” further prompting the system to send you an email.

Like the Wizard of Oz, marketing automation isn’t a mysterious or creepy force, but just a marketer pulling some metaphorical levers and gears behind a curtain. When revealed, it’s actually quite a useful way to give members a more personalized, tailored, helpful experience. And it’s left traditional email marketing tactics in the dust.

Marketing automation is great news for both the marketer and the consumer.

The goal of marketing automation software is engagement, which is accomplished by sending more relevant content. This is key to providing an excellent member experience.

Marketing automation allows you to send your members content that is highly relevant to them and their situations. For example, in the opening example, the company was able to send you an email about a specific item you had in your cart, which is much more likely to nudge you to complete the transaction than a general batch-and-blast email that promotes savings or special pricing this weekend. They’re reminding you of your interest in the transaction and making it top of mind.

Additionally, the company now knows you are highly interested in something they were offering and can send you more tailored messaging based on what you viewed on their website.

For marketers in the association space, marketing automation is essential to providing members with a great member experience and encouraging them to stay engaged or renew their membership. You receive data that helps you understand their audience better. You can provide your audience with more relevant content, both attracting new members and engaging current members, all of which boosts overall ROI.

This situation is ideal for those being marketed to. They’re now receiving content that’s relevant to them instead of emails they’re more likely to view as spam or just boring. They may also view your organization more highly because you really understand their interests and needs. They’ll feel more invested and connected to your organization.

How exactly does marketing automation make this happen? The next section gets into the nuts and bolts.

How marketing automation uses data to create a great member experience

Marketing automation makes other elements of your marketing efforts cohesive by uniting member information, their web activities, and emails. How exactly does that work?

Web tracking helps you understand your members’ interests.

Data from all your members’ digital activities feeds into your marketing automation system through web tracking. Web tracking is a tool provided by marketing automation that helps you understand who is visiting your website, and the actions they took on your website (like putting an item into the cart). Cookies are data packets that log specific individual’s web activities. This knowledge is what allows you to suggest personalized content for your audience.

Automation rules help you make the member’s journey more personal.

The marketer sets up automation rules to manage the data collected by web tracking. Automation rules are “if-then” statements like you saw earlier in the abandoned cart example. Once the automation rule picks up the completion of an “if” statement, it acts on the “then” statement, triggering an email to the appropriate member. Someone isn’t sitting at their computer checking out what’s in your cart and personally sending you a note about it, it’s an automated rule that picked up on an abandoned cart.

Ultimately, the company wants you to have a better experience with their store, so they’ll work to infuse personalization into these automated campaigns. They want the email to act like a salesperson at their store telling you “those shoes look great on you.”

Automated campaigns help you engage your members.

Where does marketing automation go from here? Marketers can run all sorts of campaigns and set up automated rules, such as new member “welcome” emails, “we haven’t seen you in a while” engagement emails, or even “interested in learning more about our association?” emails to prospective members when they interact with your website or download a resource. These are all valuable ways to attract new members and engage current subscribers, with the goal of sending more relevant content to increase ROI.

As a side note, great content is the ingredient marketing automation really relies on. Without content that engages your subscribers, automation rules are only triggering emails they may still ignore. So it’s important that well-written, relevant and engaging emails be part of any marketing automation strategy.

Lead-scoring helps you understand where to focus your efforts.

Marketing automation’s lead-scoring capabilities make it so that you don’t have to review hundreds of reports on your members’ digital activity and manually determine who is ready for personal outreach or another campaign. Lead-scoring is when your software keeps track of member’s web activities and ranks them based on your pre-determined settings. For example, you could mark that members who indicate they are an executive should be ranked more highly than those who are not. Your software would then use that rule to sort leads and rank them. You can now set up automated rules indicating that highly-scored leads should receive a certain campaign.

This tool can help you prioritize your marketing efforts in a remarkable way, because your members are now coming to you pre-sorted. It also helps you, again, provide more relevant content to your members because you know where they’re coming from.

The Takeaway: You should feel awesome about marketing automation, not creeped out

Marketing automation is key to providing a great member experience in today’s digital world. Marketing automation far surpasses the capabilities of email marketing alone because of how it connects marketers to the data and empowers marketers to reach their audiences with more relevant content, engaging and retaining them and getting them more connected. Email marketing is helpful to deliver information to your audience and give you an understanding of your email metrics, but it’s not able to put all the pieces together in a way that allows marketers to provide great interactive experiences like marketing automation can.

Understanding how marketing automation software works helps you realize it’s not creepy at all. It’s not that a company knows everything about you, it’s that they’re using software in a smart way to understand your habits and suggest more things you’d like.

Marketing automation increases your ability to connect with your audience and give them more opportunities to get involved, which is what members want, too. The goal is to improve service, not intrude on people’s lives.

Have you read the 2018 State of Marketing Automation: Association Benchmark Report yet? Download your copy below. 

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Can you have a successful customer support community built solely on volunteering? That’s the hypothesis Microsoft seems to be testing with its recent decisions for Xbox customer support.

Xbox Ambassadors are Xbox users who volunteer to help other users with their gaming issues. A news source recently reported that Microsoft has laid off twelve of its contracted Xbox customer support staff and is replacing them with these volunteers, supposedly in a cost-cutting measure. Two of the staff said they had recently finished training a group of Xbox Ambassadors who will now be their replacements.

Although Microsoft retained a couple support staff, they seem to be leaning the bulk of their Xbox customer support on these volunteers.

Is this community at work?

At first glance, this seems like something we’d advocate for – the volunteer program is working so well that Microsoft doesn’t even need a paid support team anymore. Isn’t this a great example of community at work?

Well, it might be an example of a successful use of gamification, which is how Microsoft rewards its ambassadors. To be in the program, they must be an Xbox user with a 1500 Gamerscore, be an Xbox Live Gold member, and have no enforcement actions on their account in the past year. For their services, they receive a mixture of tangible and intangible rewards like gaming equipment, games, exclusive recognition, and badges for their profiles.

We've always encouraged the integration of support staff and peer-support through online community, but that's a bit different than transitioning to a volunteer-only based customer support team. When you have the integrated model in an online community, customers with questions can make their first stop the online community, where they can get answers from peers and access exclusive resources. They’re able to access these resources at any time. If they don’t find what they’re looking for, they can submit a support ticket to be helped during customer service hours.

This ultimately saves time and money in customer support as the burden of customer support is disseminated across the online community. Customers are also happier as they find what they need more quickly through this self-service option.

Do you get the same results if you remove the paid customer support layer and rely solely on volunteer support?  

Genius gamification or customer support chaos?

Microsoft’s decision to cut costs by moving to a more volunteer-heavy model is risky. First, they’re relying on the success of an incentive program to provide support to Xbox users. If Xbox Ambassadors feel that the program’s rewards aren’t worth it for the work they’re doing, users will be out of luck. If the Xbox Ambassadors on call don’t have the time to solve their problem, users will probably end up more frustrated than if they had sat on hold waiting to talk to a support rep for an hour. Second, Microsoft’s volunteer-gamification system is not within an online community, so customers also don’t have the options that are usually available in a community, such as going to the file resource library or peer support.

Gamification and peer-to-peer support/discussion help make communities both a place to learn and a place to connect. They’re built-in components that help you encourage participation and engagement by members. But they don’t exist in isolation when they’re in a community setting. They’re built on a community made up of relationships among members and your company, and the customer support staff and the peer support complement each other to create a great customer experience.

Also, these tools aren’t a customer’s last resource. If they have a tricky question or an issue with software that’s too complicated for another member to solve, they have the option to go to customer support. These are paid support staff whose job is to respond to their concern.

Does cutting costs mean you have to decrease quality?

Cutting customer support costs with an online community is possible, and it doesn’t result in a decrease in quality. The goal of using volunteering and gamification should be to cut costs while still providing a smooth, integrated experience. Microsoft is taking a short cut by replacing paid customer staff with volunteers, which could reduce the quality of their support. If Microsoft had chosen to use volunteers within an online community, they could be doing so much more for their customers with benefits like increasing customer retention, brand loyalty, and customer engagement, while still providing the full support that their customers expect.

Ironically, in Microsoft's 2017 State of Global Customer Service Report, they said: 

“Self-service options that enable customers to resolve issues on their own should be an essential part of your service strategy…Though more and more customers are relying on self-service, customers still care deeply about agent support when they encounter problems too complex to solve on their own.”

Hopefully, Microsoft will see the value in their words and avoid cutting costs in a way that reduces the quality of the customer experience. Online communities make customers more successful while still reducing support costs for your company.

Want to learn about more ways online communities save money for companies? Download our free eBook on calculating the business impact of online community below.

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