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How can we improve our community forums?

by Will M on 07 Dec 2008 05:00 PM

We have been getting a lot of "opinions" lately over how we moderate our forums.  Personally, when I need to get support from a vendor I would rather contact them directly than post in public forums.  I can tell by looking at tickets and forum participation that the majority of our Enterprise/Business customers are the same way.  I think with the release of our new product options for Active Forums we have more customers seeking help in the forums.  I have a few theories on this, but I would rather talk about how we can improve the support and community experience for all of our customers.

Some customers have asked why do we moderate our forums.  Immediately some think we are trying to hide something or want to prevent people from posting negative comments.  We aren't trying to hide anything.  This would be very hard for us to do considering all the other DotNetNuke resources where you can easily post information.  Of course we are going to try and prevent negative information from appearing in our forums, but we will always contact the customer directly when we see this happen.

I also see problems with having customers support other customers.  A customer may think his problem is similar to another's and take the action that was suggested in the post.  When this action fails, the customer will come back and post his negative experience.  I would have rather had the customer create a support ticket to begin with.

Since I started Active Modules, I have been trying to come up the perfect balance between a support desk and support forum.  I do have a project that I have been working on periodically that could potentially solve this problem, but that is still several months away. 

We have a forum product and a couple help desk solutions at our disposal.  I think we could put together pretty much whatever we wanted, but it's a matter of what our customers want. 

What do you think would provide the best support and community experience for our customers?

    10 Comments for How can we improve our community forums?

    Duane
    Duane
    07 Dec 2008 05:33 PM

    Will,

    I can totally relate to what you have described, running a forum site for 12 years and being in the IT for an international corporation definably opens your eyes.

    Finding a balance can be a challenge, however the ultimate goal would be self help or community support then corporate support. I have found in my experience that most problems are common and by providing access to these solutions most can resolve their own issues.

    Active Cases showed great potential for this and having common asked questions and solution in a FAQ is my first choice.

    Thanks ,
    Duane
    karenlopez
    karenlopez
    07 Dec 2008 07:00 PM
    www.infoadvisors.com
    Will -

    We're in the community management business and we also recommend that all public forums be moderated, but only for those posts that violate posted TOS (off topic, personal attacks, commercial, etc.). Every community needs to set their own terms because different topics and organizations have different levels of tolerance.

    Others (and I) are a bit confused by moderation here, as many of our posts have failed to be approved and I have no idea why...even the most innocuous posts are still out there, never approved.

    We also run communities for software vendors and we do see a constant struggle trying to get people to post to support first, then to the communities in a supplemental way. We try to steer posts about getting something to work from a technical point of view to support, then to other users if the questions are more about how to best configure or make use of the software.

    We see that those who totally avoid support fall basically into these categories:

    - those that don't have a legal copy and therefore do not want contact with support
    - those that are posting in off hours/days and are hoping that someone can help them right now
    - those that don't realize that they have access to official support
    - those that have had a series of negative support interactions.

    We've used many community applications over the last 20+ years (pre-dating the Internet, even). One of the odd things we've noticed is that vendors of community software seem to avoid the use of the features of their own software on their sites. It is as if they are startled to find out that people prefer a threaded, available anytime, from anywhere record of a conversation rather than a ticket system. This has always amazed me. I'm not saying this is happening here. Other than the confusion here of why posts do or don't get approved, you guys seem to be dogfooding AF well.

    I've also spoken to others who believe, rightly or wrongly, that forum vendors should be able to "make" tickets out of forum posts...it just seems like a natural feature that should be there.

    If you think about it, trying to steer all support requests off a forum is sort of like the phone company forcing customers to correspond via postal mail.

    Our current forum vendor has a support forum and they never, ever, read it or respond to posts there. Their rationale? It's too hard to use. If that isn't a great disincentive for potential customers to buy their product, I don't know what is.
    Jeff Blanks
    Jeff Blanks
    07 Dec 2008 08:02 PM

    I would have to agree with Karen on this. I've had several posts not approved, yet no reply from Active Modules as to why. Forums in my point of view is a place for collaboration (being social) and a way for problem solving amoung customers.

    If I were to have a legitimate problem or issue, sure I'd open a ticket! But if it's not life threatening, why not post it in a forum for all to view and resolve a problem themselves rather than wait for a response?

    [QUOTE]I also see problems with having customers support other customers. A customer may think his problem is similar to another's and take the action that was suggested in the post. When this action fails, the customer will come back and post his negative experience.[/QUOTE]

    I don't think this would be an issue. People are smarter than that. They won't blame the vendor when they tried a solution provided by a customer. They would simply contact the vendor for a solution to the problem.

    When a forum is leveraged properly for simple support issues and is allowed for customer interaction and idea implementation, sharing, socializing, great things could happen. Best of all, simple documentation and support is provided by your own customers so you can concentrate on bigger fish!
    Will Morgenweck
    Will Morgenweck
    07 Dec 2008 08:25 PM
    www.activemodules.com
    Keep in mind that we are trying to be as open minded as possible about this subject. Just because I make a comment about one thing doesn't mean it has to be that way. We are looking to make changes. Just trying to figure out what would work best.

    @Duane - Active Cases still might provide part of the solution in the end.

    @Karen - Thanks for the valuable information. I can honestly say that the only reason we don't use the forums for all support is because there are many times when confidential information is exchanged. I can see the benefit of allowing the support topic to start in the forums, transition to a ticket if needed, then come back to the original topic with the solution for the support ticket if it doesn't contain private information.
    If you think about it, trying to steer all support requests off a forum is sort of like the phone company forcing customers to correspond via postal mail.

    That's pretty funny and true.

    @goblanks -
    If I were to have a legitimate problem or issue, sure I'd open a ticket! But if it's not life threatening, why not post it in a forum for all to view and resolve a problem themselves rather than wait for a response?
    What ends up happening is we are now monitoring two support systems. While I'm not saying this is wrong, but it does double our workload. Some customers will post in the forums and create a ticket. We have to reply to both otherwise it looks to the public like we are not providing support.
    G.O.
    G.O.
    08 Dec 2008 02:08 AM

    it seems a lot of queries in the forums are based around the release dates of products. This is obviously due to the fact that you have so many customers eagerly awaiting your new releases.

    If you could keep us more informed on release dates, it may reduce unnecessary forum posts.
    Andy G
    Andy G
    08 Dec 2008 02:49 AM

    Hello,

    I have come here many times looking for support and the questions seem to go unanswered. The search is my best friend because most problems are something that is overlooked by me and can be easily solved by other members. If you were to answer the questions here, over time some of the more common problems would not even end up as "Support Tickets". It would effectively reduce the number of requests over time.

    Andy
    Steven Webster
    Steven Webster
    08 Dec 2008 06:10 AM
    www.overlooktechnologies.com
    What ends up happening is we are now monitoring two support systems. While I'm not saying this is wrong, but it does double our workload. Some customers will post in the forums and create a ticket. We have to reply to both otherwise it looks to the public like we are not providing support.


    Will, I tend to see this most often when a normal support channel is not responded to quickly. "I opened a ticket in support but wanted to see if anyone has had this problem before". What's worse here is when the issue is resolve in support, it is not typically updated in the public forum - giving the impression to new visitors that support did not answer the original issue.

    I think the trick is to provide a system that is the path of least resistance to posters. If I can post in a support forum and every time that support is handled by AM staff quickly, then that is where I'll go. That thread might begin as a private post or support ticket (between my user account and support) or, if it's more of a "how to" or my purchased license only affords me community support then it could be published for community help.

    This provides one entry point followed by quick (or automated) disposition then a response either from support or the community.

    Lastly, forum posts don't seem to work very well for building a self service knowledge bases. I the tagging system could be used effectively building a easy to use KB I would likely start there for an answer, then only post a new topic if I can't find it somewhere else.
    Abdu
    Abdu
    08 Dec 2008 10:40 AM

    I have a few ideas. I don't know how your support and forums work because I am not a user of your product. So some of my ideas could be implemented already. Skip then\.

    1- Make the support ticket system for paid members only and when a ticket is resolved, the ticket admin has the option to make it available through the forum so that the public has access to it. This means the forum and ticket system need to be linked in some way.

    2- The forum is for everyone. Paid and non paying customers. Have at least one forum (type of comments/suggestions) which doesn't require registration. If all I want to do is post a one time quick comment and leave, I don't want to go through a registration process. It's a turn off.

    3- forum posters who have gained good reputation will be exempted from moderation. This releases some moderation load.

    4- While forum moderation takes resources, it pays off in the long term by having a high quality forum which users can depend on.

    5- Make forum search powerful with good filtering options. Even dotnetnuke.com's forum search is not very good. For example, search by author doesn't work. Timeouts when using big date ranges.

    6- Feedback and insights through forums is a great resource for knowing how your software is having problems in terms of lack features and usability issues.

    Good luck.

    Abdu
    Will Sugg
    Will Sugg
    08 Dec 2008 11:57 AM
    www.planetmaine.net
    I really like the forums and knowledge bases around a product because you are trolling them within seconds of being into a problem and the entire scenario is still frontal lobe. I would say keeping the KB updated and vast, and perhaps having it searched at the same time forums are searched would help. I would think this would be the first thing you would tell folks to do before submitting a ticket - I assume you are going to get slammed by loads of new users using the free version.

    thanks,

    Will Sugg
    Jashan Chittesh
    Jashan Chittesh
    11 Dec 2008 08:57 AM

    I think a pretty good example of how it can be done is http://forum.unity3d.com - that's the support forums of a game engine that I'm using. They started much smaller than they are right now, but right from the start, the developers were very active on the forums (something that many people recommend not doing - but this is an example where it simply works).

    Those forums are not moderated except for when people totally freak out - which only happened one or two times since I've started being an active member of that community about 2 years ago (basically, I've seen a single person being banned ... I think I have not seen posts being deleted, but I'm not perfectly sure about that).

    What's so great about this community is that there are a lot of very knowledgable people on the forums that can help with most of the problems newer people have. So, most of the time, the developers don't even need to answer - it works "on its own". Of course, some issues can only be answered by people in the company; and sometimes, the developers simply are the first to reply (which says something about why this works so well - I think the reason it mostly works "on its own" now is because it has and had a lot of attention but by now has simply gained enough momentum).

    Personally, when I have a problem, the first thing I do after checking out the manual is a forum search - and in 98% of the cases, I get a professional answer that solves my problem without even having to ask - because it was asked and answered before. Unity Technologies also have a bug-reporting system in place, of course - so when I discover a bug, a file it. They also have "direct support" (with a ticket system), but I've never needed to use this so far (others, however, seem to use that much more ... I think "direct support" is on a payed basis, probably depending on the problem).

    Of course, there's also "incidents", like someone from the company giving a vague release estimate, and then people complaining that this "promise" wasn't kept - but those are comparatively rare and I guess people complaining is just a fact of life one needs to learn to live with.

    So, in my opinion, forum moderation (in the sense that each posting must be reviewed before it's available) is usually just consuming way too much of your time and at the same time suffocating community communications. If you have a political forum, or something else where people tend to heat up easily, that's a different story. But for software-support, I don't see this as a particularly beneficial thing to do.

    The major difference I see between the Unity forums and Active Modules is that people using Unity usually are developers themselves, or artists - so even with many users developing games as a hobby, there's still a comparatively high professional level, and it's not so much a thing of "developers vs. users" but more "developers of a game engine talking to developers of a game". So, it might be different when you have more people using a product that are not so deeply involved in the intricacies of software-development.

    But still, I think that's a model worth looking into.
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