In this very social world, customers have a lot of options when it comes to getting support from companies about the products and services they buy: there's phone, email, FAQs, knowledge bases, forums, chat, social media, and much more.
Because expectations (including the need for speed and the need for more effortless service) have changed, many customers prefer a self-service route, seeking help through social media and online communities/forums, among other channels or options facilitated by others who have used the company's products and services.
Online communities have become a popular alternative lately. They're much more prevalent now than ever before, and customers are turning to other customers for assistance with common and not-so-common issues. There are both what I'll call "sanctioned" and "non-sanctioned" online communities, where the former is created, moderated, and owned by the brand, and the latter is stood up by fans of the brand or others who are simply willing to help their fellow customer. I'll focus on the sanctioned type.
Online communities that are created by companies have a lot of benefits for customers, including allowing them... to build relationships with other customers and, potentially/ultimately, with the brand greater convenience, i.e., they can get help on their schedule or on their time; sometimes issues happen at midnight, and not all customer service call centers are staffed at that hour to get the help they need, oftentimes bypassing a lot of the most-basic questions that a support agent may ask, thus getting to the root of the matter - and to the solution - much quicker to help others, which is often a motivating factor; this allows customers to build their own personal brands via these communities to share feedback with the company and other customers about the product, the service, and the company, with hopes that their voices will be heard and improvements will be made to talk about their experiences with the product, the service, and the company, again, to be heard and to drive change or improvements
Companies with online communities have reported higher customer satisfaction rates, improved retention, reduced call volumes, and more-efficient support systems. Doing the math on that means that communities not only benefit customers but companies, as well.
Companies get... relationships, i.e., online communities encourage and facilitate customer relationships raving fans who want to help other customers; in the end, this is one of the characteristics of raving fans, i.e., wanting to help the brand, work for the brand, and see the brand succeed feedback about their products; when the community text is mined and analyzed, rich insights can and will be uncovered feedback about other parts of the customer experience; we know that people don't often stick to the topic at hand, and when offered a forum to communicate, they take advantage of it to listen to customers and learn about the overall support experience; they can use what they hear from the community to redesign the phone and email support experience
But these communities don't become successful just by setting them up and having people ask and participate. There must be a concerted effort to ensure this doesn't become an avenue where customers can be disappointed.
Related: Culture is The Soul of the Organization
For communities to be successful, brands need to be sure to... design the community experience, i.e., design it to be effortless or to require much less effort and more flexibility than phone and email seed help/knowledgebase links and other support content throughout the community forum to address the most-commonly asked questions keep all such content fresh and relevant seed questions to get the community going categorize questions and topics to make the UI, search, and interactions simple encourage and let customers help each other, but... make sure questions don't go unanswered assign and rotate subject matter experts to the forums; these experts will offer assistance, when and as needed encourage participation from influencers and other forum participants, even going so far as to award them with points toward some reward for their involvement reinforce good behavior and professional conversations; nothing makes an online community go south faster than when the profanity and arguments start rolling not just help customers but listen to them, as well make it a great experience for your customers
Companies can reap real financial benefits - in terms of cost savings, process improvements, reduced call volume, and customer retention - if these online communities are managed correctly.