Customer forums with their community-led discussions are a way for companies to lower their cost of customer support but should not be used as a catch all for customer service, note market watchers.
Andrew Milroy, vice president at Frost & Sullivan's Asia-Pacific ICT Practice, said Asia-Pacific firms are using support forums as part of their customer service strategy. "Using customer forums either online or embedded in social media tools such as Facebook, are being viewed as complementary to other forms of customer support," he said.
With forums, companies can drive down part of their customer support costs as some engagement can be addressed by the community members, he added.
Pointing to a recent survey conducted by Amdocs, Erwann Thomassain, head of marketing for Asia-Pacific at the company, noted that the region's customers were "avid users of self service".
He noted that 75 percent of global customers would call their service providers' call center only if they could not find the answers through the provider's online self-service system. The figure was comparatively higher in Asia-Pacific countries with 80 percent of respondents in India saying the same. The percentage for Indonesia was at 76 percent, Malaysia at 71 percent, the Philippines at 75 percent and Thailand at 80 percent.
According to Aphrodite Brinsmead, analyst for customer interaction technologies at Ovum, tech and retail industries were "perfect" for forum-led support because the communities allow customers to share videos about different products, rate them or discuss features, functionality and pricing.
"Community participants often have specialist knowledge or an ability to explain a technical resolution very clearly," she added.
She noted U.K. telco Giffgaff was an example of a company that has relied on the community to provide customer service. The company does not maintain a traditional call center but employs a small number of agents who respond to private questions through e-mail, she said. Customers are incentivized to reply queries on the forum and 95 percent of queries are answered within 60 minutes, she added.
Analyst, Customer Interaction Technologies, Ovum
Besides community-led discussions, companies can also use forums to alert customers of changes in service or product issues which are being resolved, she said. Forums are also useful to quickly find the scale of a problem, for example in the case of a technical fault or network outage, she added.
Forums not catch-all for customer support
Despite its benefits, Milroy said companies should not use forums as replacements for other customer support channels. Forums need to be part of an overall customer support strategy to complement other channels such as reducing the support traffic going through phone support, he said.
Bruce Eidsvik, managing director of Asia-Pacific at Genesys, added that companies needed to have an option for customers to follow up on an issue if it was not effectively answered in the forums. Failure to do so can increase customer frustration and lead to a decrease in customer loyalty, he added.
"Companies need to support a multi-channel customer service environment and let customers pick their channel of choice rather than imposing one on them," he noted.
Brinsmead noted that such forums need to be monitored not only to ensure accurate information and find out about negative comments but also to improve the company's processes, push information to product teams and train agents on relevant issues.
Thomassain added an optimal way to minimize the confusion caused by unregulated comments was to gather the information from the forum and aggregate it with internal knowledge sources to provide a "single version of truth". For example, this could include having an FAQ page, and pinning it to the top of forum.
Besides that, not all questions can be answered within self-service. Brinsmead pointed to situations where customers required assistance with a complex issue or needed to divulge private details for their queries.
She added that companies that hoped to replicate the forum-focused Giffgaff support model will find it difficult to achieve the initial scale needed to provide adequate customer service levels from the start. Thus they will need to drum up publicity around their launch, and engage with members before their launch, she noted.