posted 19 Jan 2006 in Volume 9 Issue 5
Watching the customers
Too often, organisations only focus on internal knowledge, ignoring the knowledge that their most valuable ‘resources’ – their customers – can freely give them. By Jessica Twentyman.
Even if they do not realise it, today’s consumers frequently rely on some form of peer network to guide their purchasing decisions. They turn to family members for advice on holiday destinations, poll their friends about the relative merits of a new model of digital camera and quiz their colleagues on the reliability of home internet services.
“Consumers love to share opinions about products they love and products they hate,” says John Ragsdale, an analyst with IT market-research company Forrester Research. Increasingly, he says, they are using the internet to do so through so-called ‘social networking’ mediums.
“Social networking brings people together online in many ways, including blogs and forums, to share ideas and opinions on any given subject. Interest-based networks, or niche content sites, can turn a hobby or a work interest into a social network that will sustain itself with highly engaged users,” he says.
Not all of these interest-based networks are limited to, online gaming, entertainment gossip and political debate, he says; some have become influential sources of ideas, opinions and advice about commercial products and services offered by a range of companies.
For those companies, these exchanges are akin to marketing gold dust, giving them valuable insight into which of their products are most popular, which offer the best possibility of additional sales, which require a rethink or re-design and how those changes could be made in order to satisfy customers’ most common gripes.
It is hardly surprising, then, that many seek to harness the power of social networking by taking a more active role in such discussions and bringing them under their own auspices. In this way, they can directly capture the knowledge they contain and use them in other areas of the business too. Many are already doing so, says Ragsdale, by implementing their own moderated forums.
That trend has been pioneered predominantly by high-tech companies, which sell complex products requiring in-depth support and have an established network of already loyal developers, familiar with using online mediums to exchange queries and solutions with each other. Online-forum software from vendors such as Jive Software, for example, powers the customer forums of companies such as IBM, SAP and Sun Microsystems.
Other companies offering forum software are ‘e-service suppliers’, such as Knova and Talisma, which incorporate public forums into their wider online customer service applications. Using the search capabilities in Knova, a customer query will return relevant expert answers from the forum, displayed alongside material from customer-service databases, technical documentation and marketing materials, with the display results clearly indicating the source of the content. Talisma, meanwhile, acquired moderated forum software with its 2005 acquisition of Knowledgebase.net, and has plans to expand forum functions in future customer relationship management software releases.
As part of much wider application suites, these products are squarely aimed at large enterprises, but even much smaller companies are using online forums too. UK-based Jelsoft Enterprises charges $180 for its vBulletin software and has quickly developed a loyal base of much smaller companies that use online forums to improve customer satisfaction and support. Better-known users include professional audio equipment supplier Canford Audio; computer networking products maker Solwise; and angling retailer Fosters of Birmingham.
Forums have a number of distinct advantages in knowledge management terms. First, online forums can foster a cohesive customer community, say proponents. By giving customers the opportunity to both ask and answer questions about products and services, they transform the dynamics of knowledge management from self-help to collaboration.
They also build strong brand loyalty, as demonstrated by media organisations such as the BBC, CNN and trade publishing specialist VNU Business Publications. While these companies do not use online forums to actively support products, the forums serve to engage their audiences in community-wide debate on the stories that they cover and, hopefully, encourage them to revisit the site in future. “In facilitating and encouraging input, companies make themselves more accessible, a factor key to building a positive image for the company,” says Ragsdale of Forrester.
Second, online forums also enable companies to identify “true power users” who have become experts in particular products, “not only to capture their knowledge and experiences to help other customers, but also to have a vetted group of experts for product feedback, brainstorming and field beta testing”.
At software company Novell, for example, 35 expert end-users (called ‘sys ops’), chosen from the company’s customer base, monitor forum areas and deal with inappropriate postings on the company’s behalf. As a result, Novell needs to employ just two full-time employees to work on supporting customers in the forums.
Finally, online forums can deflect customer interactions away from call centres and technical helpdesks (with a resulting drop in costs and increase in agent efficiency), because they enable customers to find their answers and solutions under their own impetus.
“Integrating collaborative support and self-service is critical for the way many customers now want to solicit and receive help and advice. This approach allows customers to escalate through forums to another channel when appropriate,” says Ben Kaplan, vice president of marketing at customer knowledge management software provider Knova.
Nevertheless, there is clearly a risk involved in granting the general public access to post information to a user community, says Ragsdale, and safeguards must be taken to limit the company’s liability for forum postings.
For example, ongoing monitoring of the forums is required to keep the discussion on target, he says, and to ensure that the postings submitted do not contain offensive or inappropriate content. However, he adds, employees at printer and imaging giant Canon have seen only three cases of abuse in the past two years and, although they rely on forum members to report abuses to them, have found that the sense of community fostered among forum members makes them a, “self-policing group, interested in maintaining the integrity of forum conversations,” says Ragsdale.
Certain precautions should nevertheless be taken. Participants should be required to register, for example. “In case there are problems with postings, the moderator must be able to contact the user to let them know the posting is being removed and why. Allowing anonymous postings will only encourage off-topic posts,” Ragsdale explains.
Not only that, but every web page within the forum should carry a disclaimer of a link to usage rules explaining that the content is not authored or sanctioned by the company and the company is not responsible for problems caused by following advice found in forum postings.
These challenges aside, an online forum is only as strong as its participants and can only be successful if it is able to foster an involved, enthusiastic community. It is unlikely to do so if the forum is seen as an instrument of control and companies should not be too hasty to remove posts that contain negative feedback. “Such postings show the honesty of the forum and provide balance to over-enthusiastic trends,” says Ragsdale.
In knowledge management terms, then, online forums are about knowledge capture, not knowledge delivery. The best forums, it seems, are ones where the customer’s voice for once can be heard over the ceaseless bombardment of marketing messages.
Case study: Novell
Online forums are a key part of the services that Novell, a software industry titan with a broad range of highly technical products, provides to its customers. Tens of thousands of users use the forums for support, generating about 20,000 issues per business quarter.
When it comes to resolving those issues, however, very little of the burden falls to Novell employees. In fact, the company has only two members of staff working on the forums full-time. The bulk of the work involved in sorting out problems and offering advice is handled by more than 10,000 occasional contributors, each with a particular area of specialism. They, in turn, are led by a team of about 35 ‘sys ops” – real users of the products that volunteer to share their in-depth expertise in deploying and using those products in real-life situations.
In return for their help, these sys ops are given high-priority access to Novell staff, technical documentation and software code generally reserved only for employees. Because they see and deal with thousands of user problems in a month, they develop unique insights into trends and issues that they can then pass on to the company. But it is also an invitation-only club strictly reserved for the most knowledgeable users. Volunteers are only invited to become sys ops on the recommendation of other forum members and after the volume and quality of their posts has been assessed.
The use of forum volunteers has revolutionised customer service and support at Novell. Most support centres report that it costs more than $100 to author a single piece of support content, but Novell forum volunteers create and validate thousands every month, reports Kenny Bunnel, program manager of technical services at Novell. By using volunteer members of the community to provide those services, those costs are avoided. “And because of the prestige associated with being a valued contributor in the Novell support forums, people want to participate. Expert users contribute hugely to knowledge creation and validation, as well as product improvements,” he says.
Now, when a customer logs-on to Novell’s support forums, Novell learns through the process. Product managers can track the issues that are having an impact – positively or negatively – on their products and the support centres can use forum postings as the basis for trend monitoring to avoid the company being ‘scooped’ by other technology companies. They have also become the largest and fastest identifier of product defects, surpassing the traditional support centre. In the fast-moving (and bug-ridden) world of software development, such a head start is invaluable.
Overall, says Bunnel, the result is better quality products and better quality support for them. “Because customers are engaging on their own terms, and because reputation encourages high-value contribution, community members naturally gravitate to the areas where they have the most interest and skill,” he says.
BOX TWO: Where could online forums help?
“Excellent business intelligence can be derived from forum postings, particularly to help understand the business or personal impacts of missing features or product bugs,” says Forrester Research analyst John Ragsdale. “Instead of launching costly surveys or focus-group initiatives, marketing can participate in customer forums, posing questions and asking for input,” he says.
Staff engaged in product development often lack first-hand knowledge of how users interact with the products they make. Forums, therefore, can be a good source of insight into why products are purchased, how they are used, what customers’ expectations are and where products disappoint.
It is a simple fact that consumers trust each other much more than they do company advertising, so forums provide real marketing power. “In the age of social networking, selling should involve leveraging peer insight and recommendations. Not only can sales representatives understand their products better by reading postings by users of the products, but they can also convey the enthusiasm and camaraderie found among the user community in the forum to prospects,” says Ragsdale.