Community Powered Support

I’ve been thinking a lot about community powered support lately. Community powered support (for a lack of a better phrase) is support that is driven by a community of customers or users – not a typical customer service department or group. The community is not usually paid for their efforts – they volunteer their time and expertise to help others.

Community powered support really interests me. It has always been interesting, but as I’ve been talking about and learning more about it, it has gotten really interesting. The whole dynamic involved with people wanting to help out for free and doing a pretty good job is really fascinating (especially if you come from a “traditional” customer service background like me).

Community powered support is largely self-service.
Effective community powered support is largely based on self-service. You know – knowledge bases, FAQs, Flash tutorials, that type of thing. Troubleshooting guides and searchable knowledge bases are the bread and butter of self-service. Self-service makes sense for community support since it can be done whenever (and therefore doesn’t require “coverage” like a helpdesk does) and is better suited for checks and balances (i. e. editors review new KB topics, etc.).

Community powered support needs to be self-service orientated.
For a multitude of reasons, community powered support has to be self-service orientated. Volunteers can’t (and it isn’t fair to) be counted on to consistently staff a helpdesk 24/7 and get through what could be hundreds or thousands of tickets. It is hard to train them fully and it is tough to setup any formal procedures and such for how they should act. When you aren’t paying people, you don’t have as much control or influence. That is another reason why the self-service model works really well.

The people who work on community powered support are unique.
Contributors to community powered support sites/portals/etc. are unique, but in a good way. They aren’t your average customer or your average CSR. Good ones are a mix between super customer/evangelist and CSR.

  • They do work for free (evangelist and super customer).
  • They probably talk about your product or service to others (evangelist).
  • They help other customers and help to write documentation, etc. (CSR).
  • The volunteers are often very technical / advanced users of the product or service. (all three).

I think the fact that many of the volunteers are very technical is extremely interesting. They probably know more than half of the CSRs at the company and as such, are great candidates to write the self-service documentation and get all of that into place. It also allows the helpdesk staff to focus on other things.

Community powered support is resource intensive.
It really does take a lot of work and effort to organize an effective community powered support team / group. It is well worth it in the end, but requires a lot of work to get it right. Volunteers can be touchy – they are doing what they’re doing because they want to, not because they have to. As such, if they aren’t happy, they’ll leave. You have no control over them. It takes some good people skills and a bit of politicing to make everyone happy, but again, it’s well worth it.

Here are some tools you should make available to encourage community powered support:

  • Community forums
  • A functional and public wiki
  • A feedback form
  • A blog that is updated relatively often
  • Someone that is in charge of community powered support (a liason between the community and the company)

Have you ever done any work with community powered support? What have your experiences been like?