All posts by Mukund Mohan

My discipline will beat your intellect

Growing up from a customer support portal to a customer support community

Had a great discussion with a prospect today. The develop & sell infrastructure software, are about $5-$10 million in revenue, growing 100%+ YoY and business is up and to the right. Their focus is to sell to primarily departments within large Fortune 2000 companies, and mid-sized companies. The VP of Customer Support has been in the industry for years. Great guy, gets the web, self service and knows that in a fairly competitive space such as his, customer service is a key differentiator – because, every differentiator counts.

He had a great question for me: “I have a customer support website, customers can access self service and log their tickets, avoiding the cost of phone and also can search my knowledge base. So why do I need a customer support community?”

Here was my answer and I would love your feedback and other points to know what your perspectives are.

1. The $156 Billion software market is in a transition from large enterprise licenses to small pay as you go models, from. SaaS (Software as a Service) is now a preferred alternative for most customers. Most importantly software companies are starting to focus on mid-market and smaller companies, since large enterprises have lost their appetite for large purchases of software. These smaller companies have less sophisticated IT capabilities and hence more a need for support. So the number and type of support calls has increased over the last 2-3 years. This was validated by 2 other customers of ours. While the number of support calls have increased, customer support budgets have not. So you need a better model.

2. Customer support has evolved from having customers help themselves to having customers help each other. This creates a network effect and can scale your support in a non-linear fashion. Having a customer website for self service is great, but your people still have to create the knowledge base, provide answers to queries and solve the simple and tough problems.

3. The Long tail effect: There are more arcane support requirements now than ever before. In 2003 for example, Dell had 970 variations for Blade servers, Rack servers and Tower servers. Now its closer to 7000+ according to Server Watch. From what I can tell 95% of these arcane servers have not much in terms of replication in a customer support organization. Who best to tell your customers about a specific configuration than another customer with the same or similar configuration. On another note, most customers know typically more about a company’s products in production than the software provider themselves.

4. Google search and Instant gratification: The first response I have heard from most users if they have a support issue is to Google it. If the answer to a customer’s question is not in your knowledge base, they are going to submit a case and wait for your response, (which will take long since you have probably not encountered this before) and hope to get an answer soon – in this age of Instant gratification that is so not cool.

If however you enabled customer chat and instant message and Wiki based customer support documentation, you can get them the answer from other customers faster.
Now you have created an opportunity for a customer to upsell to other customers and AVOID the cost of having to purchase Google Adwords – saving your company money and bringing a new opportunity to the table.

5. The American Idol effect in Enterprises: Everyone is looking to be an instant pundit in a niche or an “A-list blogger” on Technorati. Since your customers are also in this camp, why not facilitate them to “be discovered” as an expert in an area. Since the acceptance of open source in enteprises and the “fame” for the community developers as a part of that, other users are also looking for avenues to show their capability and be the “dragon slayer” for their area of expertise.

What Business Communities can learn from social networks & Consumer communities

Here are the top things I heard from a panel of Directors of B2B communities in our customer base. We hosted 5 Bay area companies with less than $20 Million in revenue and about a potential customer base (each) of 500 users.

I also recommend if you are in the SF Bay area to attend Community Next. Bill Johnston at Online Community Report pointed me to this. I have daddy duty this weekend so I cant go.

1. Get Started: Grass roots efforts win. Get a community started without “approvals”, “budget meetings”, “lengthly discussions on the impact to the brand”. “Its easier to ask for forgiveness than permission is true of 90% of large companies. The same is true for small companies”.

2. Keep it cheap for starters: If Digg and JotSpot could get started for less than $100,000 there is hope for others to not have to spend millions to get some form of community going before the big expenditures kick in.

3. Make it easy for customers (users, partners etc.) to sign up and contribute. All you should ask for is an email address (valid company address, not a free one) and password to join the community. Collect other profile metrics over time.

Types of Corporate Blogs and Categories of Communities


Brian Oberkirch
has a good entry on types of Corporate blogs. It is a good list which compares well to the categories of Communities.

Here are some other types of communities postings:

1. We are smarter than Me also has a good list of types of communities which they reference.
2. Nancy at Fullcirc has another list of multiple types of communities.
3. Finally Face2Interface has an list of 4 types of their communities.

Best practice: Blackberry communities; Pushing User Delight

There are several independent communities around Blackberry: Blackberry forums has about 16,000 users, PinStack has about 100,000 users. One is focused on the IT community supporting blackberry and another supporting the user community. Besides this Blackberry has their own developer community, Blackberry Connection and an Owners Lounge. Owners lounge has the fewest users – approximately 12,000 I am told* (not verified).

There are a total of approximately 4.2 Million blackberry users, worldwide and about 3+ million in US.
So less than 0.3% of users have signed up for their “communities”.  According to Travel Insider, 59% of users considered themselves satisfied and 7% dissatisfied.

So why such low numbers for community participation and if these are the numbers for a product that is so well liked and universally considered a HIT, what does it say about participation levels for your own company’s communities?

The one takeway: Supporting independent communities around your company’s products and services has justified ROI.

Here are some major findings about how to justify ROI for supporting independent communities:

1. No cost of community software, hardware, telecom, support personnel etc. – This cost is typically the highest when you are starting a new community. With independent communities this cost is borne by the community participants. Most of these communities are user funded or ad supported. Your company obtains great value with limited investment in supporting the community with oversight and direction.

2. Lower cost of supporting users: Every user that goes to pinstack for questions is NOT going to Blackberry site or calling their support – this is a huge cost savings.

3. Lower cost of research and trend identification: Independent communities tend to be more innovative around cost management, since they are driven by users. They are more likely to give you information about new trends, since there is a perception of being “objective” and “independent”. Instead of paying a consulting firm for focus groups and private communities, you can obtain the same level and possibly quality of information at much lower cost.

There are some downsides of course, but we will discuss that in a future post.

Quickly putting a best practice into action itself is a best practice

Giovanni Rodriguez at hubbub has a very good piece on “The Meming of Life”. Worth a quick read. He talks about 3 kinds of “best practice” ways that people are known to get ranked up in blogs. Posting comments on other blogs – Tailgaiting, Creating lists (like I have been guilty of) Aggregating and Baiting people to discussion. To net it out the one point that I could really relate to was “The experience led me to believe that we were entering an age of
disbelief that anyone can come up with anything that’s truly original.”

I do agree with his basic premise that doing something original is fulfilling in its own way. But, here are 2 questions:

1. In this age of instant copy and paste, how much value is there to original thought? I remember at Mercury we would come up with new positioning, demos, etc. each month only to see the same thing at competitors website within 4 weeks of our new message.

2. Is there anything necessarily wrong with seeing what works and repeating its success? The best companies in most industries (Microsoft for e.g.) are fast followers. Google itself did not invent search (only did it better) and nor did they come up with their business model – You have to thank Bill Gross of Idealab (Goto.com renamed Overture, sold to Yahoo) for that. There are also several studies that point to the fact that a good idea in one industry is worth taking to another and trying to do it better.


The one takeaway
: I think best practices yield results. If significant investment in taking an original idea and making it work is made for the benefit of one company, then the collective also-rans benefit and so does productivity. The key I believe is how quickly and fast does someone execute and make a best practice “even better”. Each best practice in the community world that are discussed is something you need to implement (even in a small way) to see how it betters your community. Afterall not everything that works for one community will work for another – even if it is in the same category, same industry with the same objective.

Software Vendors that provide Community Software

There are over 100+ software vendors providing products and applications to help companies. Here is a partial list by focus and type of community. The list is compiled based on the assumption that they provide more than just forums since Wikipedia has a large list of discussion board providers. This is primarily a list of Business community providers. We will focus on Social Networking providers later. A detailed analysis of capabilities, vision and direction on each is being compiled after detailed interviews with each of the companies.

#

Company Name

Website

1

Communico Site Server

http://www.communicoserver.com

2

Communispace

http://www.communispace.com/

3

Convio (GetActive)

http://www.convio.com

4

iCohere

http://www.icohere.com/

5

Jive Software

http://www.jivesoftware.com

6

Kavi

http://www.kavi.com

7

Leverage Software

http://www.leveragesoftware.com

8

Onesite

http://www.onesite.com/

9

Pix Pulse

http://platform.pixpulse.com/

10

Q2 Learning

http://www.q2learning.com/xpert-comm.html

11

Ramius Software

http://www.ramius.net/

12

Red Dog Software

http://www.reddogsoftware.com

13

Small World Labs

http://www.smallworldlabs.com

14

Social Platform

http://socialplatform.com/

15

Sparta Social Networks

http://www.spartasocialnetworks.com/

16

Telligent Community

http://communityserver.org

17

Tomoye

http://www.tomoye.com

18

vBulletin

http://www.vbulletin.com

19

Wow BB

http://www.wowbb.com/

20

Rareface

http://www.rareface.com/

21

Connect Beam

http://www.connectbeam.com/

Email is the new snail mail: Best practice for faster response in customer suppport communities

USA Today had a piece on the younger (18-30 demographic) spending more time with Instant messaging than with email.  “But when immediacy is a factor — as it often is
— most young people much prefer the telephone or instant messaging for
everything from casual to heart-to-heart conversations, according to
research from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. “And there is a very strong sense that the migration away from e-mail continues,” says Lee Rainie, the director at Pew. For many young people, it’s about choosing the best communication tool for the situation. You might use text messaging during a meeting
that requires quiet, Rainie says, or make a phone call to discuss
sensitive subjects so there’s no written record.”

An AOL survey also indicate something similar. “While adults and
seniors in 2005 showed more interest in IM, its gains on e-mail are
largely due the “teens and tweens” with spending power and trendsetting
tastes, according to survey data America Online released Thursday. For instance, the demographic has the highest percentage
(66%) of IM users to use it more than e-mail, America Online found.
That’s three times the percentage of other age groups.”



Matt at Jive Software also points to an informal report of IM usage inside Jive.  “It represents a staggering amount of email that we didn’t have to send,
as we’ve found that each IM conversation can represent several emails
(getting a question answered over email can take several messages back
and forth).”.

Kathy Sierra also talks about quick reponse to questions being a good reason communities thrive.

The one takeaway: If (like 45% of High tech and Telecom companies are) running a customer support oriented community OR if your primary demographic is Tweens and Teens Instant Messenger should be a crucial part of your enabling technology for quicker responses to help users communicate and get answers to their questions.