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Customer communities aren't credible without legwork

Customer communities can't be credible sources of customer support if companies don't do the up-front work to make the information authoritative.

Companies may believe that online customer communities are the key to better service and more efficient operations, but they need planning and up-front legwork to be able to claim that kind of success.

Customer communities, which are online customer service forums that house authoritative articles on topics that customers and service agents can browse, are gaining credence as one-stop shops for help and support. Online customer communities can offer customers a common hub to find expert answers on topics and a central location through which members can interact. Customers can go to these hubs to find answers to questions about products, services or topics of interest. Companies can reap cost and efficiency benefits by not having to answer questions repeatedly on customer service lines or other costly service forums.

But for these communities to be credible, companies have to do a better job of laying the foundation for them as online libraries first. Companies may have to import thousands of documents from older systems and encounter all sorts of data integration problems in bringing the data into these newly built customer communities. And adoption of customer communities is often a hurdle, where users eye them skeptically if they view interactions as time-consuming or of little value.

In addition, companies that are attracted to rich, add-on collaboration tools might not reap the desired benefits if they are too complex. Adoption often lags and doesn't justify the investment. Some companies are realizing that customer communities are good ways to get all parties working together, but they still have work to do to realize a full value.

A data management problem

Pearson Education wanted to create a single website for customers to find self-service help and support information. Before it could launch its new community based on the Salesforce Community Cloud, it had to clean data residing in a few different systems.

You have to have a very thoughtful plan for rolling [Chatter] out for it to be successful.
Jenni Doyledirector of information services, Papa Murphy's

The education publishing company, which caters to purchasers, teachers and parents of students, had to migrate more than 4,000 articles from multiple databases, and many files didn't transfer cleanly into the new community easily because of HTML coding issues.

"We had a very hard time with [system] limitations and cleanup," said Gloria Gutierrez, Pearson North America's systems and content developer.

Pearson started by trying to organize the articles by type but the process was lengthened by the fact that the owner or creator of the document had write privileges, not others. This meant that only specific people could alter the documents, creating a bottleneck that took time to overcome. Pearson eventually appointed subject matter experts to become article owners before content was migrated to the new customer community.

The manual process took almost 90 days to complete, with a single person importing the articles and a programmer simultaneously assisting in the code cleanup.

"It may be better to have someone look at [the articles] earlier and let them manually review them and decide what you really need to bring over, and then just create it right in Salesforce," Gutierrez said. "That's probably what we would've preferred at the time, but we weren't ready."

Gutierrez said that, in hindsight, Pearson could have used a data cleanup utility for the HTML files. The interference with manual review of the articles was the root of the problem and Pearson needed to give ownership of the articles to subject matter experts who wanted mass-edit privileges as well as have them publish concurrently with the importing process.

Battling collaboration tool adoption

When customer communities are used for internal communication, add-on tools that are meant to foster better collaboration between parties might not be worth the investment.

Papa Murphy's, a franchise take-and-bake pizza chain based in Vancouver, Wash., uses the Salesforce Community Cloud to give franchisees a central repository for information on how to open a store. The intranet, known as Pathway, helps guide franchisees through such processes as local marketing and day-to-day store opening and maintenance procedures.

Pathway is set up as a task management tool, but so far, the introduction of Chatter, a richer Salesforce collaboration tool, has not yielded the value the company expected. Chatter is an enterprise social intranet that gives users real-time updates on projects and forums to receive feedback and communicate. Franchisees can use Chatter, but it's not heavily emphasized and usage has been lagging. The only way franchisees can suggest changes to Pathway is through a "suggestion box" custom object on the website.

"You have to have a very thoughtful plan for rolling it out for it to be successful," said Jenni Doyle, director of information services for Papa Murphy's, about Chatter. "We have not pushed Chatter, although it is there and a few people use it." Franchisees and Papa Murphy's staff mostly communicate through Pathway to keep updated on the franchisees' task completion record and any questions they may have.

Doyle said the main task is to get all the franchisees on Pathway first and then encourage Chatter as a complementary tool. Chatter was rolled out to the entire organization a few years ago, she said, but the deployment fizzled because of lack of training and organizational commitment, which undermined adoption. Papa Murphy's is trying to work with a small internal group and talk to other companies before they attempt another large-scale rollout.

"Fifty percent [adoption] is not going to cut it," Doyle said. "It won't make the business value, which means it's not worth the maintenance. I'm thinking if I don't get closer to 85% to 90% adoption, what's the point?"

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This was last published in December 2015

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