The Challenges of Customer Support Forums: What are the Alternatives?
Once upon a time, at the dawn of the internet when everything was still new and uninhibited, forums were your best way to get any kind of software support. Forums were used not only for support but also for socializing and expanding one’s network.
We’ve come a long way since then.
Peer forums have been replaced by Facebook groups and most software providers have since realized the significance of responsive, visible customer support for their brand and positioning. Surprisingly, that didn’t catalyze the demise of support forums. In fact, support forums are still a widely popular choice for many brands.
The advantages are obvious: support forums allow for a more personal touch in technical issues – support representatives write under their own names, often with their picture attached and are able to address a large number of users at the same time. Forums showcase the brand’s level of customer support and are a terrific keyword-based source for easy web search solutions.
But even with all these benefits, support forums still present a myriad of challenges that call their effectiveness as a support tool into question.
Too much work for resolving a single issue
Since today’s forums are less of a community gathering place and more of a support environment, users hardly spend time there outside of the very specific questions they have. That places support forums way beyond the average user’s digital comfort zone, in terms of visit frequency and user experience.
We’re used to toggling between 5-10 applications on a daily basis, so this new environment may present itself as intimidating. Users need to create a user name, familiarize themselves with the interface, tweak the settings & notifications to their liking – and all of this for a one time use.
Spartan, need-to-have design and UX
Forums of any kind process and deliver a crazy amount of content, that is dynamic and updates constantly. In order for the platform to stay online with regard to development specs, it is common practice to design frugally and on a need-to-have basis. Less fancy design items, less data to load and more functionality.
That leaves us with unattractive design, and a challenging user experience. This design gives off a vibe of being geared toward more professional audiences – engineers, software developers, IT and infrastructure pros, repelling “lay” users and users who consider themselves to be less tech-powered.
“Time, flowing like a river”
While this tends to be more of a community forum problem than a brand’s support forum one, it is still very much an issue. The image below depicts how it took Facebook 7 months (!!!) to reply to a user’s support question. To be fair, it is safe to assume that the answer was provided as part of Facebook’s support overhaul, and that their representatives simply went back over oodles of support questions and answered each and every one. Still, it doesn’t photograph well, and may challenge user’s trust when they approach this as a support channel.
In community forums the problem is much worse – the forum’s advantage is also it’s weak spot: information piles over years, you can’t always tell which version of the software they are referring to and whether the answer is still relevant. Like in this example from 2009, answering a question on linking data within Excel spreadsheets.
Answers (or quality) are not guaranteed
Also a problem common in community forums, especially in open source forums that are not sanctioned or supported by any specific software providers. Support questions are often subjected to the mercy of momentum – if a question was raised and did not receive an answer within the time it takes for it to slide down the feed, it is very likely never to be answered. Nobody owes you anything or is accountable to you. That is the nature of community.
This is obviously the case for open source support forums like Stack Exchange, but it can’t be avoided in community forums offered by software providers either, like the Cisco community forum. This is a fine example of the damage that can be caused when a provider tries to offer a help platform without providing the actual help. It is a community forum, where users depend only on peers for volunteering help, but since Cisco are facilitating it, failure in recruiting support translates into Cisco’s failure to provide support.
Facebook’s decision to own up to their community forums helped to position them as decent support providers, whereas Cisco’s empty help forums probably contribute to their reputation as outdated legacy computer-ware, who are out of touch with their users. Conclusion: think carefully before offering a communal support space if you don’t intend to commit to actual support.
Sometimes getting an answer doesn’t guarantee helpful content or applicable input, like in the example from Yahoo! Internet & Computers forum below. Keep in mind that every miserable user experience like this is a blow to the user, who has been “burnt” by a support forum and won’t trust another one again so soon.
“With a Little Help from my Friend” – Cultivate a Community
In the end, your users are your best marketers. Community holds much power, and so does having a user help out another user: there’s evangelism there, that presents itself in the form of solidarity, of showing someone that the occasional need for help can be easily overcome and that they’re not alone.
Cultivating a community from the get-go is a long term investment that combines marketing strategy with support goals and brand identity. The older the community, the stronger its foundations and the prouder its members.
That said, keep in mind that at least for support needs, brand representation is highly recommended, to keep issues and unrest at bay and uphold the brand’s promise of commitment to its users.
Pick the right Forum Platform
An easy way to get around the terrible name community forums still have with regard to UX, is to choose an easy to use, friendly platform. There are several of those out there, lead by WordPress’ forums platform. They are designed to be welcoming, helpful, clear and do not require any technological savvy-ness. Note the clearly visible distinction between staff and user.
In a sense, LinkedIn and Facebook groups have replaced the need for many public forums. While these are potentially great community platforms to engage in discussion and help, they are also a ticking time-bomb: many Facebook groups dedicated to a product are created as an outlet for user frustrations, as a result of official support failings.
That said, Twitter support or support on a brand’s Facebook page are gaining more popularity. Disgruntled users often turn to Twitter not as a last resort, but as a first station, as the harness the power of potential shaming and brand damage. It works, of course. Many brands have elected to cooperate with this approach, although more often than not, help resolution comes in form of “drop us a line”.
Here’s a good example of Hotjar’s customer support action on Twitter: personalization (“Hi Owen”), explaining what went wrong (“we were experiencing an issue earlier”), taking responsibility (“sorry about that”), and assuring the user that all is well without making them feel technologically inept (“it has since been resolved”).
@wallitzio Hey Owen, we were experiencing an issue earlier, sorry about that. It has since been resolved.
— Hotjar (@hotjar) February 23, 2017
Embed Context Sensitive Help
Context sensitive help (CSH) is a great way to reduce support requests and eliminate the initial need to seek help in a support forum. Essentially, it is the ability to offer users help that is highly relevant to the page element they are on.
Today, context sensitive help has developed greatly since the days of Creepy Clippy. Real CSH can identify user behavior and respond to it; react to existing/missing page elements like error messages and text fields; show users what they need according to pre-defined parameters (role, previous engagement) and of course monitor progress for future improvement.
Invest in a Knowledgebase
Building and managing a knowledgebase is no small operation. Between creating a unified support language (that is aligned with your overall content strategy), making sure you provide what users are searching and breaking down even the most complex actions into digestible instructions – well, it’s a mouthful, a stomachful and often a headful (of frustration, mostly).
But it is absolutely worth the hassle and resources. The simpler the instructions, the easier it will be for users to follow them. As a result, your knowledgebase can gain a reputation of being dependable and there is no doubt that static content is easier to maintain than ongoing support requests coming in from multiple channels.
Another advantage of the knowledgebase: you can combine it with context sensitive help and offer access to it directly from within your application using a help widget. This way, users can search for help topics without leaving their work and breaking concentration.