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Why you don’t need customer support forum software

Chris Stainthorpe

Lots of businesses start looking for support community software once their customer service demands reach a certain level. This type of software aims to cut the costs of running a customer support operation by encouraging customers to help themselves by finding the answers to their questions in knowledge base articles, or help each other by engaging in online ‘customer forums’. In principle, there’s nothing wrong with this, but in practice, a lot goes wrong with support communities. If you want to know why this happens, and how you can avoid it, read on!

Reason 1: Community support can actively annoy your customers

Sometimes, avoiding a customer service department is a win for the customer. If a company provides a well-written, frequently updated knowledge base on their website, it makes sense for the customer to use it if their problem is common, or if they’re just shy on the telephone. If the knowledge base solves the problem, the customer leaves with a positive impression of the company, and the company saves time and money by not having to individually support the customer. However, there’s a huge difference between a well-written, regularly updated knowledge base, and a ‘community support forum’, where your customers try to help each other out. Community support can frustrate your customers for two reasons:

Some customers don’t know enough to help

There are some customer support questions which can only be answered by your team. If a community support forum is your ‘main’ or even your only form of customer support, you risk losing the goodwill of your customers, by forcing them into a support forum and causing them frustration when they really need to speak to you. My favourite example of this is my mobile phone network, giffgaff. Whilst giffgaff are a great network, with unbeatable prices, their community support is often useless. My most common support request is checking network coverage in my area when I get the dreaded “No Service” message on my phone. No matter how carefully I phrase the request:

“Hi, I’m having trouble with signal in [[MY POSTCODE]]. I have checked the network status page, and it indicates coverage should be fine. Is there a problem with my account or my handset, or is the network status page incorrect?”

I will inevitably get responses like:

  • “Have you checked the network status page?”
  • I live in [[A DIFFERENT POSTCODE]] and my signal is fine! Maybe keep an eye on the network status page?

This doesn’t help me. Worse, Before I post the question, I’m pretty happy with giffgaff, but after I ask, and deal with all the people who haven’t bothered to read the question, I’m in a foul mood and promising myself I’ll start paying for a network who offer better customer service! This problem is made worse by ‘gamification’ features that encourage users to respond to more posts to earn ‘points’, ‘badges’ or ‘rewards’. Instead of viewing the forum as a place to help their fellow customers, regular users begin to reply to as many posts as possible to boost their score, regardless of whether their replies are helpful or not!

Confusing and contradictory replies

The second way that support forums frustrate your customers is when they can’t get a straight answer. If they search Google for their problem, and land in the middle of a customer discussion where five different answers that ‘might help’ are proposed, how do you think they will feel? Delighted that there are not one, but five potential solutions, or frustrated that they will have to spend time trying all five to see which one best suits their circumstances? This situation gets worse if the answers actively contradict each other.

If you can offer an up-to-date knowledge base which offers one answer per question (or clearly explains different alternatives), then this is great for some customers in some circumstances. If not, they won’t thank you for directing them into a support forum full of confusing advice.

Reason 2: Visible cost cutting

All businesses want to increase revenue and cut costs. But it’s important to measure costs accurately across your entire business, and to not fall victim to “knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing”. When you implement community support forums, you are sending out a message to your users: it costs us too much money to talk to you.

For some brands, this might be OK. If you differentiate based on being a ‘budget’ offering, then it’s reasonable message to be sending. Some other brands (for example, a lot of software companies), offer a range of usage plans, with direct phone/email customer support only available for higher-priced plans.

(This is one of the many reasons we offer a 14-day free trial, but not a free usage plan at CustomerSure – we actively help our customers get benefit from our software. Sadly, that’s not something we can do for free!)

But when mid-range or premium brands blindly try to cut costs by implementing community support, the initiative can backfire resulting in overall higher costs across the business. If you are asking your customers to pay top dollar, but you’re not investing in providing them with the great support experience that your price demands, then don’t be surprised if they are quick to switch to competitors, and slow to recommend you to their friends.

And because your customer retention is poor, and customer growth is poor because you aren’t benefitting from word-of-mouth marketing, you then need to increase your marketing and sales spend. This increased marketing/sales spend can dwarf any savings made on customer service by implementing community support, so not only do you have disgruntled customers, you’re paying more overall to get them!

Reason 3. You don’t learn anything</h2>

Providing direct customer support is a two-way thing. You get to help out a customer who’s having problems, and you get to learn from the customer. First of all, you learn why that customer was having problems. If many customers have the same problem, you learn about underlying issues in your business which you need to fix. When you fix these problems, your business improves:

  • Your customer satisfaction increases, and you get more repeat business and referrals.
  • Your support costs decrease, as you get fewer people contacting you about the now-fixed problem.

Secondly, by having a one-to-one discussion, you learn more about the customer’s current circumstances. If they call you with a simple question, you get the chance to answer that question, and ask your own questions. These questions can vary from simple market research to opportunities to up-sell to a satisfied customer. For example:

  • “So, it’s great that you’re using product ‘x’, glad I could help you with it! Did you know that if you use product ‘x’ with product ‘y’, your life gets even easier? No? Well let me tell you more!”
  • “Thanks for calling! Before you go, can I ask if you’ve bought tickets for our annual expo yet? It sounds like you‘re really engaged in what we do, so you’d probably learn a lot by attending!”
  • “We’re thinking about releasing a few new features for product ‘x’ later in the year, do you have two minutes for me to run them past you and see what you think of them?”

Of course, it’s possible to get some of this benefit from community support forums if you dedicate members of your team to working in the community answering and categorising customer questions. But with dedicated employees using it, the cost-cutting benefits of the software start to disappear quickly. You might be better off just offering old-fashioned one-to-one service.

Reason 4. Delight is more difficult

In addition to being your chance to learn about the problems your business has, one-to-one service is your chance to turn a customer into a lifetime fan and recommender, because it’s where you get the chance to impress them by over-delivering on their expectations.

Over-delivering can take many forms, and it all depends on the specific circumstances around the customer’s problem, but, for example, if offering to pay $5 shipping costs to return a faulty item buys you a customer for life, and causes that customer to recommend you to 10 of their friends then that is good business.

Support forums don’t make this kind of interaction impossible, but they do make it more difficult. When you’ve been a customer, do you feel more special and valued in a one-to-one interaction, or when you’re posting on a website?

When is self-service good for customers?

This post probably sounds like I’m outright against self-service systems like community forums and knowledge bases. I’m not – used correctly, they can be important part of your customer service mix. I’m trying to show how they’re dangerous weapons in the wrong hands, because when they’re used incorrectly, they will cost you money.

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times already, many businesses can benefit from a well-written knowledge base (if you’re looking for software, maybe check out HelpGizmo). If you keep it simple, and keep it up to date, you’ll save money, and keep customers happy, because they can get common problems answered quickly, freeing up your support team to deal with more complicated issues.

Some businesses can benefit from support communities. If you’re explicitly a ‘budget’ offering, then go for it. Some brands really play on this and make ‘community’ and ‘DIY’ part of their identity (I mentioned giffgaff earlier – I still love them, in spite of the dodgy support forums). If you offer ‘tiered pricing’, you can do well from support forums, if you’re clear and transparent that getting access to personalised support will cost more money than a ‘basic’ or ‘free’ plan. (And also, if you’re not draconian about enforcing the rules – helping out a customer in an emergency can be a great way to get them to upgrade to a paid plan and keep them as a fan for life).

If you are a mid-market or premium brand, be wary of support communities. Provide one if it provides a measurable benefit to your business, but be very careful that you also provide a clear way to get personalised one-to-one service for customers who need it. If you don’t, you’re in danger of increasing your overall costs because you’re missing out on the marketing and sales benefits that personalised customer service brings.

Do you run a successful support community? Let us know what you’re doing right. Or, if you hate (or love) being directed to self-service support as a customer, tell us why…

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