Advice: Offer Support Everywhere

By Josh Catone
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I recently read a post by email marketing firm Feedblitz founder and CEO Phil Hollows on his company’s blog advising web startups to delete their support forums. A surface reading of his post actually makes sense. Hollows argues that “forums disintermediate companies from end user pain and the subsequent opportunity to improve. Sure, there may be good forums out there but monitoring a forum is NOT the same as providing support, and it’s a very slippery slope indeed. It’s outsourcing.” In other words: forums aren’t personal enough to be used for support, and ditching them will force you to offer better support to your users.

But Hollows is really missing a key point. The quality of the support you offer has nothing to do with the tools you use, it has to do with how you use them. Forums are just a tool, but they can be utilized to offer great support to your customers, the same way email and phone can be used to offer terrible support (as anyone who has ever waited on hold with my local cable company knows).

The main thrust of Hollows argument, if you read between the lines, is a good one. Though his advice getting muddled amidst the silly “ditch forums” mantra, his real point is: offer good support. And of course, that’s great advice. According to Hollows, a company’s “most valuable market resource [is] highly specific, expert customer feedback,” and you can only get that if you interact on a personal level with customers.

Why he’s convinced you can’t get that through forums is beyond me. Perhaps Hollows had a bad experience with a company that offered terrible, impersonal support via forums. Really, though, companies should take half of Hollows’ advice and ignore the rest. Yes, focus on providing great support. No, don’t throw out your forum.

In fact — add more forums. Companies should try to interact with their customers in as many places as they are able (i.e., without diluting the quality of the support you can offer). Let your customers find you for help in the places they’re more comfortable. That means you should most definitely offers support by email, forum, and phone, but also interact with your customers via Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and Get Satisfaction.

One of Hollows’ commenters seems to understand this very well and offers what I think is ultimately much better advice.

This strikes me as throwing out the baby with the bath water. There are plenty of companies (and other organizations) that do a terrible job with forums, but this is a reflection of the companies, not the tool. I agree that a forum alone is rarely the best form of support, but done well – i.e., monitored and actively participated in by the company – it can be quite effective. And done in combination with other forms of support it can contribute substantially to an excellent support experience. — Jeff Cobb

Good support is less about what tools you use, and more about how you use them. As long as you can continue offer support at a high level, you should offer as many different means of contact as possible. You can offer a good support experience via forums, and you probably should. Further, you should not only offer support in forums, but should offer support everywhere.

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  • Jesper Frier

    The main reason why we spend time supporting our customers (for FREE) on our forum, is that we have now +3,000 pages indexed in search engines and the forum is our main lead generator. And the download leads coming from the forum is more likely to convert to buyers.

    >>>> Our email signature management forum:

  • I completely agree with this article. If nothing else, forums are a great repository for support issues. Fixed support pages (e.g. FAQs) very rarely come up with the answer or even the right question, therefore requiring me to call premium rate numbers for 1-2-1 support.

  • I agree with you Josh, it’s how you use your support channels, not what channels you have. One of the examples Phil uses re-enforce his point as a perfect example of how not to use a forum as your sole solution, rather than why not to have one at all.

    The way I look at support here at SitePoint is not have a singular solution. Cater for the varying ways your customers prefer to contact you in your overall Customer Support plan. We have email, multiple forums, an online form, US and Australian phone numbers, Fax — all of them used to varying degrees by existing and prospective customers.

    Customer support is about serving your customers needs, and if you’re funneling them away from how they prefer to interact with your company, you’re already starting on the wrong foot.

    Hey here’s a crazy thought — want to improve your customer support? Open more communication channels, don’t close them.

  • c0wfunk

    forums are my number one way to find answers to problems. Most of the time other users have experienced the issue you’re having at one point or another. The most important thing to me is a quality search feature..