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Support Forums: Just Say No

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Many companies use customer support forums as community driven resources to help people find the detailed knowledge they need to solve their problem. Many of these companies will tell you what a great resource these forums are. Perhaps that's a little true.

Of course what is absolutely true is what's left unsaid: "... and if you use the forums then you won't be coming to us for support." Which is fair enough, to a degree - if you can help someone without having to go through the tedious and relatively expensive process of a support call / email, everyone usually ends up ahead. FeedBlitz has a Knowledge Base which is there for exactly this purpose.

But it's a thin line between enabling a community resource and coming to rely on it as your support function. That line is far, far too easy to unwittingly cross. And I think, at some point, most do.

Two examples from my own personal experience this last week.

I'm evaluating some commercial software. I have a problem which none of the solutions on the forum solved. So I wrote to them asking for support, and the response? I was told to post my request on the forums. Excuse me? You want my money but won't give me any pre-sales support? If that's the way I'm treated before they have my money, what's it going to be like afterwards? That's not unwittingly crossing the line. That's a fully-fledged decision. Yuck. I'm not buying.

Then a free service I used caused me some grief this week. There's no support function there at all (yes I know it's free but these guys have zillions of customers and plenty of money). The forums are the only way to get attention - and they didn't help. In fact, I only got my issue solved because of people I know in the organization concerned. If I were a more casual, less-connected user I'd have been SOL.

So I think support forums are a Bad Thing. They make companies lazy. They separate companies from their most valuable market resource: highly specific, expert customer feedback. And I think that the value of a forum, to both expert and novice alike, is probably overestimated by the companies that run them.

There will, then, be no forums at FeedBlitz for the foreseeable future (please remind me of this if I ever seem to change my mind). FeedBlitz users get help from FeedBlitz support, often from me, because if something's going wrong, either suddenly or systematically, then you bet we want to know about it ASAP. Where we discover systematic issues that cause recurring support issues we do our best to improve the product to solve the problem. Like everyone else, I'd really prefer it that you could use our service without calling support. That's how we can scale and that's how it works for the vast majority of our users for most of the time. But if you do need to contact us, then please do. Go ahead. I want you to. That's what support is for, and it's one of the most important ways we learn about our customers and our prospects.
  • If there's a crisis we want to know so we can fix it.
  • If there's an issue that causes many people the same problem over time, we want to know so we can fix it.
  • If there's a latent opportunity, we want to know so we can exploit it.
Being directly connected via support helps us scale and keeps costs down because we end up spending much less time on support calls than comparable services. The less time (and the less money) we have to spend on support means we have more of both to spend on building a better service. It's why Craig Newmark at Craig's List apparently often mans the phones - he wants to know what's happening on the front lines. Me too. This is a key part of building the next generation, lean and mean businesses that Fred Wilson discusses from a valuation perspective here.

So here's a radical thought for early stage companies trying to grow revenues and cut costs: Embrace support. Aim to control costs and increase market connectedness by reducing call volume, not headcount costs. Don't outsource to a forum (because, be honest, that's what you're actually doing). Don't outsource to people on a different continent simply because their hourly pay scales are lower. Choose to stay connected and fix the root cause of any issues that appear. You'll get better, faster and lower your costs more quickly if you do this right.

If you're more established and feeling disconnected from your customers and what they experience, and you're wondering how to get that back, don't simply assign someone to monitor your support forum.

Delete it.

You'll probably be glad you did.




Blogger Maskil said...

Thanks for the perspective of someone who’s both a vendor and a customer. I’m sure many of us can relate to this kind of experience. I posted something regarding some similar experiences on one of my blogs, here:

J-Blogosphere: Why don't vendors support their products?

6:05 AM, February 08, 2009  
Blogger Jeff Cobb said...

This strikes me as throwing out the baby with the bath water. There are plenty of companies (and other organizations) that do a terrible job with forums, but this is a reflection of the companies, not the tool. I agree that a forum alone is rarely the best form of support, but done well - i.e., monitored and actively participated in by the company - it can be quite effective. And done in combination with other forms of support it can contribute substantially to an excellent support experience.

8:06 AM, February 08, 2009  
Blogger Phil Hollows said...

@Jeff: My point is that forums disintermediate companies from end user pain and the subsequent opportunity to improve. Sure, there may be good forums out there but monitoring a forum is NOT the same as providing support, and it's a very slippery slope indeed. It's outsourcing.

I tihnk the best approach with an extant forum is to take the repeated requests / problems that show up, turn them into a knowledge base while the product is fixed, and then make the forum more of a market research tool not a customer service tool.

11:34 AM, February 08, 2009  
Blogger mrry.dmlo said...

I like that your honest and straight to the point

8:43 AM, February 20, 2009  
Blogger fivereasons said...

I am in tottal agreement. Although I am a newbie and continuing my learning. The one thing I hate more then anything is going on a wild goose chase trying to find an answer to a simple question.. KISS! I thought the whole idea is to build relationships. Get rid of the junk. We don't need it. Pick up the phone. So what you have 50 billion subscribers. Hire a couple high school students and train them. I don't know, but if the support system is not within the site. I rarely get back to the answer. Thus there loss. Less activity there. Tickets are ok. But only within the site itself. In forums you surely may see the answer to your questions and learn. But when there is a real problem you need real people help. You don't need another problem.

Thats it. Over and Out.

Caroline Schukraft.

9:56 PM, February 25, 2009  
Blogger Jon Dale said...

This is an interesting perspective. It seems to me that perhaps there's a place for both.

TypePad uses a trouble ticket system, knowledge base combo that works pretty well.

I don't like just listing an email address (especially with a disclaimer that your email might not get through).

A knowledge base, that leads to a trouble ticket system makes the user feel heard. Then the key is to respond quickly. Even if its just to say...we got your message. It's the not knowing if you've been heard that sucks for users.

I agree, in a best case scenario, a user would be able to get help from a friendly company rep who picks up the phone on the first ring, responds instantly to live chat, and answers online support requests within minutes.

Unfortunately, I can only think of one company that provides that level of support...Zappos.

And yet interstingly Zappos still chooses to supplement their support on GetSatisfaction. They've actaully got quite a team in place for this: http://getsatisfaction.com/zappos/people

I agree with you, that the 37 Signals post raised some valid points about how Get Satisfaction was presenting themselves. And I'm glad that GS made changes to their site to more clearly present their relationship (or lack of) with the companies.

Thanks for being passionate about providing support. I wish more CEO's took your approach.

2:23 AM, April 23, 2009  
Blogger Phil Hollows said...

I think a KB and TT system is a fine approach and one we'll probably move towards. It's user forms and relying on end users to provide front line support - and the downstream business risks - that I don't like.

2:36 AM, April 23, 2009  

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