Online customer service and outreach programs are nowadays more or less required for any business aspiring to be competitive in the marketplace and attract more customers. Nearly every major retail or manufacturing company has a slate of online customer service tools and resources which facilitate interaction between customer and company.
Many have adopted programs for utilizing social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, in order to manage perceptions of the brand by offering responsive solutions to leave the customer satisfied, even following what may have been an unpleasant experience.
Those companies at the forefront of online customer service have taken social media one step further by establishing and maintaining their own networks and forums directly on their company website. These have become more than simple bulletin boards; today, users generate their own unique content, answer other users’ questions, and come to be socially invested in the online community they have helped establish. The more sophisticated and organic the community is, the less a company has to rely on in-house or out-sourced customer service personnel.
Fostering a discussion forum or customer service community has been shown to be an excellent way to cut costs associated with traditional customer service programs. The need for call centers is greatly reduced, as those who would normally phone the company’s customer service division can now find reliable answers from others in a matter of minutes online. Company representatives are instead available to help those customers who require real assistance with an internal matter, such as returns or billing information.
Some companies may be concerned about the reliability of the advice or support given by the community, but there are relatively easy ways to ensure answers are correct and advice is solid. Depending on the size of the community, customer service agents can act as moderators of the forums, or trusted users can be given more online authority in order to maintain the integrity of the customer service program. Usually these “ambassadors” have a very high lifetime value to the company and are influential in spreading positive word of mouth.
Examples of companies with thriving online customer service communities include Verizon, Intel, Cisco, DirecTV, Symantec, and many others. The initial design and server fees are well worth the cost in the long run, considering the amount of money the company saves through lower customer service costs.
Customer service online communities often go unnoticed or unappreciated when companies explore new methods for customer outreach and retention, but they have proven to be one of the most cost-effective, efficient ways to aid and develop relationships with valuable customers.