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.