Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Community Management and Customer Service Must Work Together

Community management and customer service are two distinct areas of a Web business, but when it comes to communication it is vital they act as one.

For example, a Web startup I worked at broke this rule. It segregated the two customer-facing roles:

Customer Service had a team of four customer service representatives (CSRs). They would take all inquiries through the Web product via email, had an on site presence, moderated the technical support area of the official forum and were available via 'live chat'. Customer service's primary roles were policy enforcement and technical support.

Community Management consisted of a community manager (me) and worked out of the marketing department. The community manager was available through email, instant messenger, had an on site presence, and moderated the official forum. The community manager was responsible for consistent messaging between the company and its customers, hosting on-site events, addressing questions about company and product direction and played the role of customer ombudsman. Community management's primary roles were communications and public relations.

In the beginning both groups operated in their own silo, sealed away from each other. Needless to say, it was not very efficient or effective. The CSRs would tell customers one thing, and community management would tell them something else, and vice-versa. Community management was faster to respond to customer inquiries in most cases, which created further inconsistencies. Finally, both teams were very bad at telling each other what was going on.

The result? The customer experience suffered, influencing the business's success. If I could go back in time, I would make these changes to how the two groups were structured:

Clear communication is priority one. Not just business to customer, but internally. The two teams should be set to work together from the beginning, with a simple technological solution to assist working together. Whether it be a SharePoint-style site, or intranet of any kind, information must be easily shared between teams so the customer is never confused by mixed messaging.

Response time is vital. In a real-time world, both groups must strive for immediate responses to customer inquiries. On the customer service side, automated responses via a ticketing system with a tracking number and a canned message is enough, because it's something. On the community side there will be times when it will be necessary to cover for the customer service team. Statements should be prepared outlining how the customer's problems are a priority and are being dealt with in sequence.

Prepared communications. Ultimately, community management drafted a set of canned responses to customer inquiries to help customer service with business and product direction. These had to be created as new customer issues would arise. Also, community made room for technical guides, etc. on the official forum to help users through issues they were having with the product. The teams got in the habit of talking to each other, and updating each other about potential issues on the horizon.

One decision maker. The customer service group had a lack of leadership. As a result, they had four different 'bosses'. Singular direction is important because any confusion is passed on to customers.

Preparing community management and customer service to work together will keep the company's responses timely and messaging clear. Be proactive, because winning a customer back is harder and more expensive than winning them in the first place.

© Jeremy Buehler and Rogue Tendencies (www.roguetendencies.com) 2010.

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