They may not be talked about much, but forums are a driving force in true social media success. Social Media Explorer has experienced the prevalence of forums first hand. When we begin working with a client we create a Conversation Report, which uncovers research on where online conversations are happening around their brand, competitors and industry. More often than not, we find the majority of conversations are happening in forums. In fact, the publicly available Social Media Explorer Conversation Report, “What Consumers are Saying About Banking” showed that 90% of conversations about banking and banking products happen on FORUMS and less than 1% happen on social networks. It’s funny. Despite how much forums dominate the share of conversation for brands, rarely, will you find someone talking about their “sexy” forum strategy. That’s probably because forums are viewed as “old-school” and less relevant. I’m not scared to admit it. We create some truly stellar forum strategies and they can be immensely powerful in driving relevant conversation with the right target market.
Social Media Explorer isn’t the only group who understands the power forums hold. Recently, I flew down to Orlando to participate in the Hewlett Packard Social Support Summit. (Disclaimer: HP covered my traveling expenses in exchange for my expertise.) In Florida, I came to experience a whole new perspective on the power forums can have on an organization.
HP has offered online support forums since 2009. In the HP forums, consumers ask questions about products, get help for technical issues, and even support related to interface changes with the release of Windows 8. The value of being able to ask a question and get a response is powerful for customers. However, the real power lies in something else entirely; building a culture of helping others and creating a positive customer experience.
HP has created an environment where they have empowered customers to answer questions and solve customer problems requiring little to no HP “official” intervention. They bring their most active customer experts to the Support Summit each year as a thank you. Out of the 150 HP expert attendees, 26% were customers who have been designated as HP Experts.
The truly amazing part of the story is how customers come to participate. Frank Silvia, an electrician and lasvegaswiremen in the forums, said he went to the forums to post a question and while he was waiting for a response, he started to browse through the other questions. “I found several really easy questions that I knew the answer to so I answered. Then I got addicted. Barring technical difficulties, I spend anywhere from 1-3 hours a day answering questions now.” Several other customers including Steve, WB2001 in the forums, stated they spend 30-40 hours a week in the forums answering questions. For me, I was overwhelmed by the amount of time these customers spend time helping other customers, so I had to ask, “why do they do it?” The response was simple. The overwhelming majority of customers I talked to said they do it because they enjoy helping other people.
That’s powerful. Are their opportunities you could provide your customers to help each other? As companies, I think we get so wrapped up in our own views we think customers would “never” spend that kind of time helping us for FREE. But have you ever really asked them or given them the opportunity? What would happen if you empowered your customers to start helping each other?
HP Employees Volunteer Time in the Forums
Customers aren’t the only ones addicted to the forums. While HP has a small team that is responsible for answering difficult questions and ensuring posts don’t get missed, the large majority of employees who attended the summit have no formal responsibility for participating in the forums. These employees aren’t skipping out on their job to answer questions either. They are responding when they get off work.
I talked to employees from all areas of the company, from product development, engineering, and website development. The interesting part is that the employees are responding for the same reasons. Every person I talked to passionately told stories of how they were able to help others and solve complex problems. The company has created a culture that rewards employees for helping customers in the community. Managers are extremely supportive of employees. Employees who are active participants in the forum get a monthly email thanking them for participation and their achievements that is copied to their manager, so their managers are very aware of their activity level. They support participation and achievement in the forums so much that they pay for their employees who earn an invite to the Summit to attend out of their own budgets.
Participation is Fueled by Gamification
So how does HP do it? Simple. They turned it into a competition. HP’s Support Forums are powered by Lithium’s community platform which has several virtual rewards customers and employees are competing to achieve.
One of the biggest honors is the HP Expert badge, which displays a badge on every one of the user’s posts in a community. This was a program that was officially launched in 2012 and includes training and support meet-ups in cities all over the country. This badge is achieved when the users gets a certain amount of “Solutions”. A solution is achieved when the person who asked the question marks your response as a solution. “The best thing that can happen is to get a solution and a kudos from the customer”, Steve (WB2001). The customer can also opt to click the kudos button on the response which is a virtual hi-five or thank you to the person who answered their question. Kudos provide points that feed into something really important; the leaderboard.
Both customers and employees talked about striving to get to the top spot in the forums they respond to the most. I got a chuckle as I was walking through the hall and one of the top experts was literally bombarded with paparazzi as people wanted to meet him. Inside the community there are different categories including notebooks, desktops, monitors, and printers. Each of these categories has its own leaderboard and it’s a fierce competition to the top. Perhaps that’s what inspires customers to spend 30+ hours a week working so hard to get solutions and kudos for their responses. This has also created a community inside of a community. The HP Experts are very supportive of each other and will step in and give another expert a kudos if they think they deserved it, but the customer didn’t provide one.
What are these customers and employees battling it out for? Perks for HP Experts includes invitations to the Summit, free products, early announcements on new releases, and other real and virtual swag. It’s amazing the lengths we’ll go to for a little reward, isn’t it. It goes to show that gamification is a powerful motivator.
The Future of HP Support
So what’s next for the HP? Enrique Lores, Senior Vice President, Customer Support & Services, Printing and Personal Systems, says he has two primary objectives; to have an industry leading operations workforce and to provide a differentiated customer experience. He said, “customers don’t only buy products because of the product itself, they also buy because of the experience. We want to differentiate the experience and make it the best in the industry. We are investing in people and technology to make sure this happens.” He doesn’t deny there is a cost benefit for HP to drive customers to the web for support. He said, “the intent is to maximize cases managed through the web and minimize phone support. However, we will do it by showing that the web is a great experience, not by shutting down our call center. As long as our customers want support over the phone we will keep providing it.” One of the key metrics HP will use to measure the customer support experience is “Time to Answer”, however they recognize this must be balanced between the customer’s need for a fast answer and the benefit of having the answer come from another customer.
Enrique also recognizes that today they have a reactive model to responding to customer issues and he is working diligently to turning that into a proactive model that is able to anticipate problems. Patricia Graca, Director of Social Support, discussed the vision for the customer experience, “I want to make sure people who need help have a good experience and I want to make sure those who answer get rewarded. There is value in being in this together. It solidifies relationships on both sides.”
Do you have a forums strategy for your company? What do you think about empowering customers to provide social support? Do you think HP’s focus on customer experience will be a differentiator? Leave a comment and join the discussion.