During the 2007 postal rate change Pitney Bowes, which provides postal equipment and services to businesses, received more than 415K support phone calls on the rate change alone, all in under a month. This was in addition to the company's usual flow of customer calls, so its support teams were moving fast and furious.
In 2008, the $6.3 billion company decided to do things a little different. Pitney Bowes implemented an online community, provided by Lithium Technologies, to proactively provide answers to presumed frequently asked questions about the latest rate change -- and also empower users to help each other.
Lithium’s “engagement communities” are essentially branded, custom user-powered social networks for companies who want to encourage communication with and among their customers. These communities can include RSS feeds, polls, integrated search, private messaging as well as interactive chat and blogs, leveraging the principles of social networking to improve customer service as well as branding and marketing.
Mike Hardy, strategic communications program manager for Pitney Bowes, said that the company decided to implement a Lithium community rather than a competitive community due to the Lithium's focus on succcess versus tools. He said the decision was validated when they were able to get a full community up and running in a matter of weeks, in time for the 2008 rate change. According to Hardy the community had a significant impact on the business.
"According to industry benchmarking the average support call can cost $5 to $10 each," said Sanjay Dholakia, CMO of Lithium. "A community support approach really can increase savings for a company."
Specific to Pitney Bowes, Hardy said that call reduction was noticeable after the community was implemented, but it could have also been due to other factors, such as a less complicated rate change than 2007. He did say that the main question "How do I update rates on my machine?" was viewed upwards of 37K times, which would equate, according to the industry benchmark, of about a $70K support cost savings just for that question alone.
Because Pitney Bowes customers were able to use a "self-service" model to find answers, the company estimates that the total savings amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars. However, implementing the community, while it began with a support issue, is only half of a two-pronged social media approach. The other half being actual customer engagement.
"We're approaching our 3,000th registered users, which is not huge compared to some consumer electronics companies, but that's a big deal for us," Hardy said. "We also have to keep in mind that users do not have to register to view or read the content; they log in if they want to engage. But our page views are still skyrocketing."
To manage the community, Pitney Bowes has its customer support staff helping to moderate, and also uses a paid moderation service provided by Lithium on a halftime basis.
"We're very happy with the service and the help we get from Lithium, including bi-weekly team meetings with their community development team to make sure we're getting the most out of the community," Hardy said.
There were some lessons learned along the way, however.
"We came out of the gate with way too many topics out there," Hardy said. "We quickly learned that with too many topics and not enough interaction to start, it made the community seem empty. It's what I call 'empty restaurant syndrome' -- if you look in a window and no one is in there, you likely won't go in."
Hardy said that the company quickly pruned down the community and focused the activity, and also put some promotional power behind the community. After making those small changes, the community really started to grow.
Altogether now, the Pitney Bowes` community provides general discussion areas where customers can engage with one another around various mailstream topics, in addition to "Ask the Expert" forum events where a Pitney Bowes expert hosts a week-long discussion on a specific topic of interest. Pitney Bowes has also launched a "Think Tank" forum where customers can post and vote for ideas about Pitney Bowes products and services. Pitney Bowes management reviews these ideas, plus other customer insights gained from the community, during a monthly executive steering committee meeting.