The following is a guest post from the inimitable Jay Baer.
The best opportunity to grow your business with customer service is to engage with your "onstage haters," or customers who complain in public forums. And the best opportunity to engage with your onstage haters isn't in social media (yet).
More than half of onstage complaints appear on review sites
Today, more than half of all onstage complaints occur not on Twitter and Facebook, or in forums, but rather on review sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Amazon.
The increase in customer advocacy that results from answering a customer complaint is greater on discussion boards than anywhere else. That may be because so few companies choose to engage in these channels.
Engage your onstage haters
Patrick O'Keefe is a discussion board expert and the author of Managing Online Communities. He believes all companies should be monitoring and participating in relevant forums. "I really encourage brands to participate in forums because it's where the most passionate customers hang out . . . It's so powerful to go into forums and answer questions because becoming a part of the community helps the members of that community see you in a more favorable light. If the company is participating in the forum, and they offer a service and you eventually want that service, the company is going to be top of mind."
He acknowledges that many businesses choose to not answer questions and complaints in forums because they can be niche and insular. Success can also be more difficult to measure, compared to other venues for customer interaction.
"Why I think a lot of companies are reluctant to participate is because it's harder to track," he says. "You don't own that community. You don't have access to the database. You don't have even the surface level analytics from Facebook that they provide you with. You don't really have a lot of information about direct results from within the forum. You can look at thread view counts (how many times the topic has been viewed on the forum) and you can look at how many people visited your website from the forum, but that's about it."
O'Keefe also reinforces that, like in all onstage venues, the audience on discussion boards and forums isn't just the customer providing feedback, but potentially all members of that online community. "I always tell people, when you respond in a forum, don't respond to the person who posted, respond to everyone who will ever read that conversation."
Your answers are recorded for perpetuity
And that conversation could be read much, much later. Many online communities last for a long time, and they typically have high rankings in Google and other search engines, due to their topical authority and specificity. So if someone searches for your business name or the name of one of your products, a question asked three years ago in a forum might appear on the first page of search results. Isn't that a question you'd want to have answered?
Forums are often detailed repositories of information. As a result, they are most likely to be consulted when people are ready to make a purchase (and thus are using very specific search queries), or have already purchased (and have very specific questions about the product or service).
Because of the nearly infinite digital shelf-life of forums, the value of replying may persist indefinitely, but O'Keefe still recommends responding quickly, ideally within one week, with 24 to 48-hour response times a worthy objective.
Target a 24-48 hour response time
Since discussion boards and forums are often true communities, with a core cadre of members participating with consistency, it is ideal if you can have the same person within your business—maybe even yourself— engage in a particular forum every time. This builds recognition and trust that can boost advocacy, and benefit of the doubt as well.
Esteban Kolsky is a social business strategist whose company, ThinkJar, works with many large companies on their social media customer care initiatives. He says that in the best forum programs, the participating team members become indispensable members of the community at-large, due to their knowledge and accessibility.
"You need to put people in these forums who can answer the questions, your subject matter experts. You can build communities around those people, and have them solve as many customer problems as possible, in real-time," Kolsky said.
Ted Sindzinski from SVS agrees: "Our forum participants are not people we hired off of the street. They are people that are product experts. My marketing team is pretty sophisticated, but we don't make or support the product day-to-day. It's easier to train somebody how forums work, than it is to teach somebody everything about a product. I can't learn 20 years of audio experience as fast as someone could learn to post on social network or online community."
He says that forums aren't just part of the SVS customer service playbook, but integral to the business itself: "At SVS, forums and participating in them are core to the company's history. It's literally how the company grew, when it was a small initial startup. It was seeding product awareness in forums. It has always been part of the company's DNA, and even though many companies still don't participate in forums, for us, it's just a given. For every person who posts a question in a forum, you have five or ten or 20 more who find us. It's hard to find an exact number, but we get indicators all the time of how important the forums are to SVS."
1,200 photos daily on plastic surgery discussion board
Discussion boards and forums aren't just for consumer products, either. In just about every industry and locale, there is an online community for a dedicated group of professionals, hobbyists, or potential customers looking to connect. In the United States, massive numbers of healthcare decisions are made—at least in part—by patients reading and participating in forums. There is a dedicated forum for nearly every disease, condition, malady and remedy in existence. There's even a very large discussion board for plastic surgery. It's called RealSelf.
Every day on RealSelf, members post more than 1,200 photos, either of themselves or of body parts they wish to emulate. And to-date, the platform has accumulated more than one million comments and answers from plastic surgeons.
Tom Seery is the founder of RealSelf, and explains its success this way, "These procedures are highly unfamiliar purchases. It can be very awkward. So our focus is on helping a physician become more relatable and relevant to the consumer who is looking for a physician that they can feel personally connected to, before making a decision. We help that doctor answer consumers' questions, which allows them to demonstrate their expertise. And the doctor is able to also express their personality and showcase that their interests aren't just in making another credit card swipe of their patient, but that they also do actually want to help people make better decisions. We also provide a platform for patients to share their experiences. 'Was your tummy tuck worth it or not?' And as you dig into the site you can see people are not just writing reviews, they're really sharing journeys and telling stories."
Patients review physicians and specific procedures on RealSelf as well. Due to medical privacy regulations, most physicians do not answer reviews specifically in classic Hug Your Haters fashion, but instead participate indirectly by answering questions and providing assistance in the forums.
Discussion boards and forums are also important in the business-to-business (B2B) economy. One of the largest of these is Spiceworks, a comprehensive online community for technology professionals that bills itself as "Where IT goes to work."
Discussion boards for B2B
When business-to-business (B2B) technology companies want to participate in the Spiceworks community, they nominate individual team members to do so. Spiceworks provides training materials on the best ways to interact with IT end-users on the platform, and each participant receives points and recognition based on their contributions.
Once that participant reaches a threshold that indicates he or she is a trusted member of the Spiceworks community, they are given the label of Green Guy or Green Gal, marking them as official representatives of their company on the platform.
Give it a personal touch.
This personal touch matters, according to Spiceworks' Executive Director of Marketing Communication, Jen Slaski: "The more companies can make customers feel heard, the more they can explain something, the more people can see you're taking feedback and you're trying to make a difference, that goes a long way." She says that customer complaints change, and their overall ire diminishes when they realize they are talking to a real person; a representative of the company instead of "the company" as a faceless entity.
A model to consider: Priscilla @ HP
Priscilla Jones is one of the faces of Hewlett-Packard on Spiceworks. Her official title is HP Social Media Ambassador, and she represents the massive company in a large and important online venue. It's a busy job. As of September 2015, she has written 1,935 posts on Spiceworks, and her contributions have been named "best answers" 118 times. She's also authored 102 replies tagged as "helpful posts" by the Spiceworks community. Priscilla is also a member of 64 groups within the platform, including the "virtualization" group, the "Oakland, California" group, the "motorcycle" group, and the "women in IT" group.
One of her "best answers" on Spiceworks, and a good example of the potential impact of participating in forums occurred when she answered a question about a HP printer from "ChrisJG" in May 2015.
"Hi All, I have a P4515X printer that shows that it is a P4014n printer on the configuration page printout.
It's never been used outside of trying to set it up and test. The person before I took over said he was having issues with the networking part of the printer, but he left this position before resolving the issue. I've updated the firmware to the latest, 04.221.6, on the HP website, but that didn't resolve anything (not that I really thought it would). I've tried resetting the printer to factory settings, and working with PJL files, but I can never get them to update identity of the printer. I've read that in situations like this, you need a "multibyte file" from HP Support, but since this printer is no longer under warranty, I'm not sure I would be able to get a file. I would really appreciate any suggestions as I am completely stumped at this point. Thanks!"
Priscilla replied one hour and 16 minutes later, including links to specific resources:
"@ChrisjG, you may have noticed in your research of your issue that replacing parts, especially the formatter, can cause a printer to have "an identity issue." You may have also noticed this post in which @dicka confirms that the "multibyte file" has to be obtained from Tech Support and @dicka gives very detailed instructions on how to use the file. Click here. You will observe in this post that @dicka gives the names of staff to whom to send the information for the file. Click here. If this is old information, please call Tech Support at 800 334-5144 to request the file. If you encounter problems please ping me. I see that this is your first post. Welcome to Spiceworks!"
"Thanks for the info Priscilla. I did come across those linked posts and was able to create and send the PJL file to the printer to update the serial number and model number, but the problem still remains. I'll ping Tech Support Monday morning to see if they can assist. Will I still be able to get a file even though the printer is no longer under warranty? Thanks!"
"Hello ChrisJG, Thanks very much for the update. I felt that perhaps you had already seen those posts. Let me ping you regarding your Tech Support call." (Note that after this message, Priscilla contacted Chris in private, using the messaging function of Spiceworks)
Chris then replied:
"Thanks for all your help Priscilla. HP support came through with the multibyte file. My printer has been cured. Thanks!"
And Priscilla wrapped it up beautifully:
"Hello Chris, thanks very much for the positive update. Wonderful news! Your update has made my afternoon. Please let me know whenever your products need 'curing.' Enjoy the holiday break."
It's not difficult to provide great support in the hidden lairs of your most passionate customers. But you do need to devote knowledgeable people to it, and give them the opportunity to make themselves human and approachable.
Drawn from Hug Your Haters: How to Embrace Complaints and Keep Your Customers, about which Guy Kawasaki says: "This is a landmark book in the history of customer service." Written by Jay Baer, Hug Your Haters is the first customer service and customer experience book written for the modern, mobile era and is based on proprietary research and more than 70 exclusive interviews.
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