With the rise of help centers, chatbots/virtual agents, automated diagnostic tools, and support staff, there’s growing confusion about where a community fits into the picture.
I’ve stopped being surprised by organisations that spend thousands, even millions, of dollars each year on a support community and then ask us to tell them why.
This raises some critical questions:
1) Who exactly does the community serve and how?
2) Why would a customer visit a community instead of simply using a growing number of other tools – often tools which are easy and quick to use?
3) What is the unique role of a support community in 2022?
The Golden Rule About Customer Support
Putting aside the (many) outliers, we can abide by a simple rule about how people (notably customers) will resolve any problem:
Like water, people will follow the path of the least resistance to achieve a goal.
Or, to put it more succinctly:
Your customers will follow the path of least mental effort to resolve their problem.
The goal of a support community is to reduce the level of mental effort to achieve their goal.
There are several very specific areas where a community does this better than any other channel.
But first, we need to understand how people resolve problems these days.
How People Resolve Problems In 2022
This diagram below is illustrative rather than comprehensive, but it gives a standard overview of how people resolve a product problem today.
First, people fiddle around with a potential problem for a few minutes (typically some variation of turning it off and on again).
Next, they go to a search engine and type out a phrase or two that best describes their problem. The search engine will hopefully either surface documentation or a community discussion that contains the solution.
If the search engine doesn’t provide an answer, the average person visits the company website and looks for a ‘contact us’ button to file a ticket.
Community Resolves The ‘Inbetween’ Questions
Community fills the gap between the problems which are common and can be easily solved by typing an answer into Google and those which require the responder to have insider expertise or the customer’s personal data to resolve.
You can see this in the example below
If the community didn’t exist, a lot of customers would have to expend a lot more mental effort (and potentially wait a lot longer) to have their problem resolved by support staff.
Or to put it in more financially viable terms:
A community reduces support costs, increases satisfaction (or NPS), and retains customers who would otherwise give up and seek an easier product to use.
And it does this by reducing the effort required to resolve the intermediate problems.
Why Doesn’t Everyone Simply Visit The Community?
It’s best to use a real-world example here.
Recently the left earbud of my Sony WX-1000MX3 earphones stopped working.
I didn’t visit the Sony website to find the answer because the website is huge and it feels like a lot of effort to navigate through to find the specific piece of information I needed. I didn’t visit the community because first I would have to find it and then I would have to navigate through it.
Most importantly, I couldn’t remember the name of the model of earphones I was using at the time. This is what we call an indescribable problem. Communities are also good places to go when you don’t know how to describe a problem.
It’s far less effort to type “left earbud of Sony earphones not working” and see what pops up.
Not only did Google retrieve the precise article I was looking for from the Sony support site, but it also retrieved walk-through videos others have shared as you can see below.
Why Don’t Community Results Show Up On Search?
They often do! Most traffic to most customer communities comes via search.
But most of the time this traffic is from queries that are too specific (or narrow) for a broad help center article to resolve.
This is again where the community fills the gap between the help center and support. If you know exactly what to search for, you might land on a result.
Likewise, if you don’t know what to search for, you might eventually ask in the community (as opposed to contacting a support agent and asking what your problem is).
The Single Biggest Driver Of Engagement In A Support Community
The single biggest driver of engagement in a customer community is the number of questions your audience has which lie in the mental effort gap between the help center and a support agent.
You can have a huge customer base with lots of questions, but if not enough of those questions fit within the gap above, the level of engagement in a community will be small (as the diagram below depicts).
This is helps explain why brands with similar numbers of customers can have very different levels of engagement.
Some simply have more ‘inbetween’ questions than others – questions which are too niche for support but don’t require personal data or insider expertise to resolve.
The (Occasional) Exceptions To The Rule
However, there are some exceptions here.
You might be targeting a specific audience (e.g. gamers) who would rather eat off their own arm than phone a support agent. They’re more likely to switch products than make the extra effort of resolving their problems.
There are other audiences/fields, like software developers, where the problem is part of the process of collaborating and learning together. It makes sense to visit a community first and collaborate on a new solution to the problem.
There’s also plenty of organisations that only provide support during working hours (the very hours ironically where people can’t spend 20 minutes on the phone trying to resolve their problem). In these situations, a community can provide 24/7 coverage as an added benefit.
But these are the exceptions, not the norm.
Implications Of The Customer Support Experience in 2022
This has implications which change how we think about and value a community. Going forward this is going to have several key implications for all of us.
1) Calculate the theoretical potential of the community. The estimates of engagement are typically wildly inaccurate. The best estimate of potential engagement is to take an (ideally large) sample of customer support queries and tag what percentage could theoretically have been answered by other customers. Then you can estimate the cost of resolving a support ticket and come up with a defensive estimate of the community’s potential value. You can measure this % later on to estimate the community’s potential impact.
2) The unique role of the community should be clear internally and externally. A lot of pain and confusion arises when colleagues and customers don’t really understand what a community is for. If you can clearly communicate to both groups the unique purpose and value of the community, everyone will benefit. You can use this to optimize your customer journey for example. In all of your customer onboarding materials (and on the site) it could be clear which questions go to which channel.
3) Your community should be laser focused on reducing the effort a visitor expends to find the result they want. I’m looking at you private support communities! This means reducing the complexity of information and the sense of ‘overwhelm’ a member might experience. Keeping the community tidy, well organized (properly tagged, good taxonomy, archiving old material), and ensuring information is up to date goes a long way here.
4) Cater to niche and indescribable problems. Don’t try to dominate generic search terms (i.e. ‘[x] isn’t working’). Far better to focus on getting answers to the niche questions (i.e. where someone knows the problem they’re getting answers to) and situations when someone doesn’t know what terminology to use to get an answer (the former is far more important than the latter).
Win The ‘Inbetween’ Questions
While some might dream that the community might one day replace the majority of support functions. This probably isn’t going to happen. Other tools are often the better option because they require less mental effort. There’s a danger in trying to be ‘just another support channel’.
Where community really shines is in solving the ‘inbetween’ questions. If you get a lot of ‘inbetween’ questions, then you should build a community to resolve them.
The value of answering a lot of ‘inbetween’ questions can be extremely high. If you don’t get a lot of these kinds of questions, then you might seriously consider if a traditional support community is the right option for you.