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Friday, April 12, 2013

Support forums - encouraging users to add their feedback and increase communication levels

In today's world (actually even in times gone by), it was always important for makers of software to engage with their customers. If you build something, you may be secure in the knowledge that you did your best and built your software to meet the customer needs and expectations, but if you are not engaged with your customers, then you might not be on the path to success. What works with customers can be enumerated through marketing and surveys to the highest degree, but customers have a horrible way of surprising even the best laid plans. You may turn out with a very successful software product, or you may turn out with a product that may fail to click with customers. How do you prevent this from happening ? Well, you need to be engaged with your customers, get their opinions, and do so in a way that you are getting it in their natural setting (and not depend entirely on a controlled setting where people representing customers are presented questions and information taken from these answers); and so this before, during and after your product is released.
Why would you want to get information from customers after your product is released ? Well, unless you are there for a one-off product, you need to ensure that your customers are engaged with you, feel that their opinions are taken into account, and if they have any queries, those are answered. And a critical part of that is about ensuring that their opinions and complaints are responded back. However, one major problem that I have seen is that formal customer support is more and more treated as a way to also generate revenue (or also to atleast cover costs). If done well and if you have skilled customer support, then you end up with customers who are satisfied. However, I have also seen customers who are very dis-satisfied with the level of customer support that they are getting and this forms the basis of a bad opinion of the product and of the organization. I was recently searching for some help on a topic related to MS Word, and found a page where users had suggested some solutions, and this worked for me as well. But, when you read about the opinions expressed by many of the users, the common complaint used to be that the customer support was unable to help them, and then they found a solution on a web page, and continued customer interaction on that web page brought such pages to the top of web searches for that particular problem.
And this is where teams and organizations need to be focusing. Formal customer support in the form or chat and telephone may have a certain resolution capability and experience, but it is important to combine this with web pages where users can report problems and get solutions. I have seen teams where team members are encouraged to respond to user problems and suggest solutions (especially in cases where customers are looking for simple items such as looking for a certain feature or a plugin, or some other issue that is not machine or user specific). In the cases I have seen where teams did this kind of interaction, we also saw that other users also started jumping in where they could suggest solutions or where there was a case where they had been given a solution in the past and they could post the same solution for another user. In addition, we had started tagging users with badges which identified them as experts at proposing solutions, and this started to build (pride and the prestige associated with getting recognized in front of other users would make sure that people got into this mode of reporting solutions). Eventually, this got into a self-sustaining mode, but the team ensured that it it did not let up about their interactions with users).
These pages also started getting reported higher and higher on search engines, and as a result, more and more users started landing on such pages when they were running into problems and for most of the users, there was not a need to go to formal customer support mechanisms.

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