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Support Community ROI

July 15, 2009

The number of corporate sponsored communities is on the rise, and the number of ways for the community to create value for both the participants and the sponsor are virtually limitless.    Why is it often difficult to explain why people want to use them, and why a company should not only launch their own, but continue to invest for success?     As communities have a quantifiable cost they represent an investment, and all investments should have some form of payback or return.  We call this return on investment or ROI.

I’ll skip over the basics, and assume an understanding of community, specifically one in the support genre.

Much of the content found in research papers, case studies, and in discussion by practioners is a focus call avoidance or call deflection, because many companies are establishing peer to peer support communities to help reduce the number of calls that their call centers must field.   If a customer can go online and get his or her question answered by another customer, that saves the company an average of $10-$15 per phone call.   (an oft-quoted range)

Popular in most ROI discussions today are two types of call avoidance – direct and indirect.   Direct avoidance is if one customer asks a question and it is answered online.  That customer did not have to call – the call was directly avoided.   If an agent of the company provided the answer, then there were still some costs associated, but delivery via chat or a community is still fractional compared to a live call.   Even better for ROI is when another customer answers the question correctly.  No company labor required to avoid the call.

Better still, and this is one of the reasons a support community is a better strategy play than staffed chat, is indirect deflection.   When an answer is given, it may be subsequently viewed by tens, hundreds, thousands of other customers who have the same question.  Thanks to the beauty of search engines like google, these customers don’t even have to be members of the community, or even know the community existed before typing their question into search and being offered up the discussion with the answer in the search results.   The best communities of today have ways of marking discussions as solved and guiding new arrivals to the post in the discussion which resolved the issue.   Some communities have associated knowledge bases,  repositories of factual articles, built from the foundations of all the trial and error work performed by the community in discovery of answers.  

Searching the knowledge base provides the reader with more trusted and complete answers.   The support communities of tomorrow may have an knowledge base integrated into the community, building upon the existing user reputation engine so that a workflow to nominate, author, review, and publish articles will exist within the community and the most technical and trusted members can be given the keys to make the content more relevant and effective.

While direct and indirect call avoidance are well discussed today, most of the discussion is limited to avoidance of calls based on the face value of the information in the community, and not upon how those discoveries can be incorporated into the manufacturing or core business process to drive out defects and reduce service events in the field.   As service events can run into hundreds of dollars vs tens of dollars for a call, the opportunity here is immense not only in terms of avoided costs, but higher satisfaction levels and competitive advantage of a superior quality product.

 Communities can surface issues faster than traditional call centers, and it should be a fairly easy study for a company to compare when issues are first observed in community vs when and if they are ever escalated for action from their call center.   One could look at the difference in time – days, weeks, or months and see how many more units were shipped during this interval of time, and what percentage of those will now need some attention in the field.  Multiply this by the cost per event, and potentially this represents the additional ROI the community could provide for just that single issue vs reliance on a traditional call center.

Of course, the opportunities are often more than a single issue, which is why it is important for a company to ensure responsible staff are involved and working with it’s community leaders to identify and work on those issues which may be more broadly impacting.  Consider the following simple illustration.

support chart

If time in hours, days, weeks, months were on the X axis of this chart, and this were an illustration of the lifecycle of a discussion, then early identification of a problem, by encouraging and actively participating in the discussion during the  discovery phase is vital.   The point of problem definition is the point where the issue has been qualified in the community by comparative experience posts amongst different users to say what are / are not the common symptoms and variables such that the company can pursue a solution.

While the issue is being worked,  all the additional discussion and views  are potential waste – cost in bandwidth, moderation effort, and potential negative impact on brand image.  It’s a ticking clock in the community.   Internal investment within the company in terms of resources, and sense of prioritization to address a public and broadly impacting issue can shift the point of solution line to the left and stop the clock earlier.  In addition to the forms of waste already mentioned, additional waste in terms of shipped units or other operational costs can be reduced.   Focus in this area can dramatically improve the benefit of the community.

Existing discussion on community ROI today tends to focus on the views of the solution posted back to the community.  Views of this post over the remaining life of the discussion tail represent the indirect call deflection benefit.  A knowledge base can further improve the visibility and accessibility of this answer, increasing it’s efficacy in reducing expense, while improving the customer experience.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 15, 2009 4:27 pm

    That was an excellent description of how things work now and the added advantage of including a knowledge base.

  2. Tim permalink
    July 16, 2009 10:01 pm

    So when will your test case being Mark? Take a previous issue that was worked through “normal” channels, measure the probable costs, and then compare to the next comparable issue that comes up and work it through “expedited” channels?

  3. Tim permalink
    July 16, 2009 10:02 pm

    P.S. Excellent post. Glad you were able to get the thoughts that have been swirling around your head the past many months into words.

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