Verena Zang, a Senior Consultant in our German Marketing, Sales and Service practice explores how the creation of peer to peer communities are innovating customer service.

Our natural instinct is to trust those who are close to us.  With the advance of social media many of us use our social networks to help inform our purchase decisions.

Companies in many industries are recognizing this trend as an opportunity to get closer to customers and have started integrating social media with their information sources and customer interactions. Indeed a recent study among German call center executives shows that the majority of interviewees have considered the integration of social media channels into their portfolio. Social listening is one approach that allows companies to use this data to support their ongoing product and service development. With all this activity taking place, the topic i’ll be exploring today is how can companies use support communities to improve the overall customer experience?

Businesses recognize that customers have high expectations for good quality customer service.  They also understand that a significant portion of customers like to share their experiences or post their opinions about products, brands and companies online. By extending customer service to social networks, companies meet their (potential) customers in an environment where they interact daily. In peer-to-peer communities customers help each other to solve handling issues or find the best product for their purposes.  Providing customer support platforms and making use of external “product experts” can help companies improve customer service levels. Among US retailers, for example, 23% of study participants already offer company-hosted communities in which customers post topics of interest for other customers. 27% planned to follow in the near future. (Forrester March 2010)

One step further is a concept that the German mobile communication provider Simyo has established: “Simyo Mentors” – an ask-and-answer platform for all kinds of questions about its products and prices. Customers can view over 100 profiles of registered mentors and choose a person that matches their preferences and requirements. The experts are evaluated by speed and quality of their answers so that community visitors can choose the expert that they rate as most reliable and most similar to their own communication behavior. By hosting the platform on its own website the company secures a strong connection to its brand.

Another example of how companies are social communities is the telco provider giffgaff. Claiming to be a “people-powered” business, it doesn’t offer any conventional customer service channels staffed with its own service agents. Instead it’s a well-managed community providing incentives to earn extra minutes by answering questions of other giffgaff customers and thus manages to build networks among its customers.

The advantages of integrating customer support communities into your customer service strategy include:

  • Increased credibility: Studies show that 44% of consumers trust people that are just like them (Edelman Trust Barometer 2010), and 74% of consumer purchasing decisions are affected by key influencers on social networking sites. Gartner shows that customers value advice of other customers more than that of a company’s employees. Real customers providing a service to other customers improves the credibility of information.
  • Expert Knowledge: Users with a strong interest in the product often have profound product knowledge and can provide detailed answers to even complicated issues. Especially with highly technical products these experts are closer to other customers than contact center employees because they face the same challenges in using the product. Dell’s IdeaStorm community, for example, addresses its customer’s expert knowledge and creative power by providing a platform for new ideas and suggestions around its products.
  • Lower cost to serve: Enabling customers to help other customers can also reduce the volume of direct customer contacts, thus reducing contact center resources. The transfer of customer service to online communities ensures 24/7 support which would create high cost to service when provided by conventional channels. Linksys by Cisco Systems for example stopped its email support one year after its community launched. Since then peer-to-peer support has replaced a large number of customer contacts (Forrester May 2010).

Despite the advantages there are many things that can go wrong and it’s important to be aware of the pitfalls. For example typically online discussions start with a defined question which results in comments and advice – the personal nature of the comments may lead to arguments or an exchange of irrelevant comments between two bloggers. Another example is the risk of users giving incorrect information to other customers – unintentionally or intentionally. Thus damaging the company’s reputation.

How you can use customer support communities to improve your customer experience?

For starters it’s essential to evaluate whether having a customer support community as part of your overall customer service strategy matches the company’s target customers. Even though social media networks are continually on the rise, this might not apply to all lifestyle segments and products.

Second ensure that you have a clear strategy and thorough planning. A lot of questions have to be addressed:  How do you attract the right people to your community? How can you make your experts loyal and discussions interesting? How much intervention and control will be needed to support the community’s success?

Successfully managed customer support communities are one instrument to help build outstanding customer experience and at the same time reduce the cost to serve.