I'm a huge users of certain group forums in my own professional and personal life.
Some of these forums have played important roles in increasing my customer loyalty so I thought I'd share a few examples from the trenches to demonstrate how a group forum can help you.
When I first started blogging for fun, I turned to BlogHarbor as my blog host for no other reason than I found stumbled on to them and signed up for a free trial without really knowing which other players were out there. However, BlogHarbor soon won me over as a big fan.
They did a supreme job of combining strong technical support with having a well-attended and moderated user forum.
At the time I started blogging, I knew nothing about HTML coding so I selected a standard template to use -- and I soon grew tired of it in my quest to personalize my blog. I started visiting BlogHarbor's user forum, populated by the host's users and well moderated by John Keegan, their chief tech support guy.
I loved the users in the BlogHarbor forum because so many of them were willing to give other users a plethora of detailed tips. If you ask me, it had a lot to do with the customer service outlook of John and that helpful attitude rippled throughout the forum.
Thanks to a combination of asking questions, reading others freely given tips, and experimentation, before too long, my blog had a custom look.
BlogHarbor won big time too because not only did I become a huge fan of their service but I also became one of their advocates and gave them lots of public kudos. If you're a marketeer, you know how hard it is to get client testimonials (and if you're not a marketeer, trust me, it's hard to get folks to agree to go on the record even if they love you). And I gave them to BlogHarbor for free...without being asked...because I loved their service.
BlogHarbor is a Tucows reseller so when Tucows made a business shift, it forced BlogHarbor to do so as well. I cried (metaphorically speaking!) because I loved BlogHarbor's value-added Tucows platform, their service, and their forums.
John started a new venture called PressHarbor, which is based on a WordPress platform, but for a variety of reasons, it didn't meet my needs so I've jumped. However, I would PressHarbor to anyone who wanted to use a WordPress platform because of the quality of service that John and company will provide. Plus, I'll continue to keep my eye on John's ventures because I'd use his services again if he offers something I need. His team is that good.
Enter Squarespace, my substitute for BlogHarbor.
There's a lot I like about Squarespace. It's geared towards enabling bloggers and small businesses to be able to build websites without having to know HTML coding. However, if you are a developer, then you can add custom functionality so it's pretty cool.
Like BlogHarbor, Squarespace combines superior tech support with user forums. I visit the forums almost every day, on the look out for tips that I can incorporate into my blogs.
I'm also pretty darned particular about what sort of added functionality that I'd like to see in the Squarespace arena -- and so are some of the other clients.
Having the forum gives us prime opportunities to impact the host's development calendar. A user will post a thread to explain a wish list item and, if it's popular enough, other clients will jump in and add their voice to the request.
It gives Squarespace developers an opportunity to see how popular a wish list demand is based on the number of forum users who jump in.
Guess what else it does. The forum helps Squarespace developers find beta testers for its new feature functionality. For example, I expressed a complaint about their content editor and one of the responses to my thread was a call for beta testers for a soon-to-be-release update to the editor.
Since I complained, I felt it only right to volunteer so before too long I'll be a tester. And since the functionality is so dear to me, Squarespace can be assured of getting detailed feedback.
All in all, it's a win-win for both Squarespace and its clients.
Microsoft Windows Live Writer
Like a huge chunk of the world, I use Microsoft applications. And like a huge chunk of the world, I cringe when something goes wrong with one of their apps. Because Microsoft is such a monolith, getting help for buggy applications is like spitting on a breezeless day. It pretty much goes no where unless you're paying out the bucks.
I started using Windows Live Writer as a blog editor recently and found it to be a cool little application. I'm a fan of BlogJet as an editor too but WLW has some cool plug-ins that BlogJet lacks and that's why I switched off.
My blog writing world cruised along just spiffy until one day, for no apparent reason, WLW went buggy on me. At first I thought it might be because of some interface problemo between Squarespace and WLW like maybe some sort of change in Squarespace. I tried to upgrade WLW and then reinstall it.
And egad, the application completely quit on me. I couldn't open it at all and, let me tell you, the tears almost started flowing because it meant I couldn't access about 2-days worth of blog writing effort. Do the math the cost of that potential loss.
I went searching on the net and found a WLW forum and posted a query out there to try and troubleshoot what was wrong. To be honest, I didn't have much hope because most of the questions were repetitive, showing most of the users didn't bother looking at each others posts. Still desperate times and all that.
Guess what I found though, when I poked into some of the posts. A contact email for a Microsoft guy who sounded like he was either a WLW techie or product manager.
I shot off an email direct to Microsoft Guy (I had a real name), explained my problem in detail and heard back from him within a couple of hours. After a few emails back and forth, Microsoft Guy fixed my problem.
Sigh of relief.
Before the exchange with Microsoft Guy, I was ready to abandon WLW and scurry back to BlogJet because I have to be able to depend on my blog editor. To be honest, at the moment, I'm sitting on the fence because WLW is still in beta so it might still have bugs (and Microsoft Guy couldn't explain how my problem occurred so it's something they'll have to look into). However, I haven't left yet and might not. I'll just have to see.
So Microsoft converted me from an "I'm outta here" to an "I'll wait and see." If the application continues to be only a bit buggy and the fixes are as Microsoft Guy zippity do da quick, then I'll stay.
Not exactly a hands-down sign of loyalty but given Microsoft is still building its Windows Live brand, so tally that as a positive for them.
As much as I'd like to tell you that all your customer service problems will be fixed if you implement an online community, I'd be telling you a tall tale. However, if you combine an online community with other avenues of customer support, like strong tech support, then you'll have a winner.
People like to be able to help themselves, through activities like a user forum. However, people also like to know a real person is waiting in the wings to help them when they need it. If you combine the two, kablam! That's powerful formula to accentuate your success. Happy customers lead to keeping happy customers and finding new ones to add to the fold.
It's a whole happy customer thing.