Customer Support Goes Social

Let's face it. Most product support sucks. And, if yours doesn't, you're among the few organizations doing it right.

What's the problem? Support has always been thought of as a necessary evil, something we must provide because it's expected, not because we value our customers and place a high value on providing exceedingly amazing experiences.

Here's the typical scenario. Create a product. Create a marketing plan. Whip up a few user manuals, a tutorial or two, maybe a little online help. Slap them together on a website. Call it something lofty, such as a "web-based knowledge center." Voilà! You've just created what customers have come to expect: a mediocre, poorly organized, seldom updated, browser-based product information dump. #Fail.

Today's always-connected customers aren't impressed with that no matter how much you dress it up. They expect more from you, and they're becoming vocal about it. According to Forrester Research, Inc., consumers make 500 billion "impressions on one another about products and services" in social communities each year. That's why an increasing number of companies are moving to a new support model, a socially connected one.

Enter Support 2.0. Think of it as the socialization of product support. It's a new approach designed to create experiences that meet-even exceed-customer expectations by marrying product documentation with the best features of the social web.

Organizations adopting a Support 2.0 model are growing socially enabled support centers based on a membership model. Create a profile (or leverage an existing social network profile) and you're in. Customers are enticed to join in hopes of finding the type of information they need quickly-with help from other members-in much the same way they do on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. They may even join because someone else they know recommended that they do.

Support 2.0 community members aren't passive consumers of the information you thought to provide. They're active participants in the creation of content you didn't have time to make, budget to fund, or foresight to realize they would need. Members create and upload content, edit and augment existing content, and provide assistance to one another.

As in any group, not all members participate with the same veracity. Most are lurkers, folks who do not participate as actively as others. They might rate content, leave a comment or suggestion, or help answer questions now and again in product support forums, but that's about it.

Power users, or "mass influencers" as Forrester has dubbed them, are another story altogether. These members are extremely active, attention-seeking, advice-giving, content-creating evangelists for your brand. They love to hang out in the community, write articles, create documentation, make video simulations, and help others. They're an unpaid workforce of volunteer product support engineers who enjoy helping others learn to use and love your products.

The trick to success is keeping them engaged. Some Support 2.0 communities provide contributors with points that can be exchanged for digital candy: things such as badges, special invitations to online events, or free products and services. Companies such as Autodesk, Inc. are experimenting with the "gamification" of support by "deputizing" the most active (and trusted) contributors, providing them with special privileges (rewards) that allow them to do more than regular members.

Socially enabled support centers are also hubs for collaboration. They provide rich feedback mechanisms, allowing customers to communicate with each other and with you. Errors, omissions, and confusing content can be pointed out so that improvements can be made quickly.

This is particularly important when you consider that socializing support content has a positive impact on search engine optimization, lead generation, and sales. When a prospect stumbles upon your support site, you want it to be a good first impression.

Aaron Fulkerson, CEO of MindTouch, Inc., a company that specializes in helping companies roll out Support 2.0 product communities, says that "70% plus of our site traffic is from organic sources, and our documentation generates more than half of our overall site traffic. Furthermore, over half of our lead generation is driven by our documentation."

If you're looking for ways to differentiate your organization from the competition-and make more sales-make your support content social. Use the knowledge you glean from their interactions to govern decision making. Turn your most avid fans into evangelical product support specialists and you'll soon be surprised at the results.