Thoughts on Online Support Communities: An Interview With Shelley Sessoms of SAS

Go back 20 years and customer service mainly consisted of 1-800 numbers, seemingly interminable queues, those oh-so-lovely IVRs, and plenty of angry customers. To be sure, this process exists in many if not most large organizations. Make no mistake though: Servicing customers in many instances no longer requires a proper telephone and annoying hold music. One relatively new and popular method is the online support community. (As I write in The Age of the Platform, thanks to Google, most us us live in an age of self-service; we want to fish for ourselves.) According to Forrester, 74 percent of business-to-business--aka, B2B--buyers research at least half of their work purchases online.

Prior to the proliferation of online support communities, customers wanting help with a product had to rely on colleagues or technical phone support. Not so anymore. Millions of people go online every day to get help from peers and company representatives. In this vein, I recently spoke with Shelley Sessoms, Community Manager at analytics software company SAS.

PS: Why have online support communities become so popular?

SS: It boils down to people wanting answers when they want them. It's the immediacy factor. In fact, a 2014 Harris Poll discovered what Americans want from their online experiences and the brands they do business with. Eighty-seven percent have requested help online regarding a product or service, and those folks want responses quickly. In fact, 66 percent expect a same-day response. That same poll said 67 percent of Americans use an "800" or toll-free number as a last resort.

From our own database review, we also know that Generation Y, aka millennials, are heavy users of online communities. I'm not that far removed from Gen Y, and I don't like calling a toll-free number for help. I go online for help, looking for answers from people just like me--the ones using the product. Jason Dorsey of The Center for Generational Kinetics says that there are approximately 79 million millennials in the United States. He notes those millennials are tech-dependent. We see these folks in our own online support communities.

PS: What are some aspects of a good online community?

SS: First and foremost, you need to put the needs of the community first. Give them space to ask and answer questions. Provide them with a place to share tips, tricks and knowledge. We call it a Library--the place where community members can post articles that are designed to help other members. This gives the community member a chance to shine and show his or her expertise in SAS®.

Giving them space also means not policing them too much. Obviously, we'll step in when we see offensive language or abuse of the community guidelines. But it's important to let community members talk to each other, even when they aren't saying the most favorable things about your company. Those good and bad things are all learning opportunities.

Another aspect of a good community is having a strong relationship with your super users. Those are the 1 percent of the community members who contribute the most content. As a community manager, I try to forge a bond with those folks. It's a way of extending the SAS brand and developing strong word-of-mouth marketing...the best kind of marketing, in my opinion.

PS: You mentioned your role as a community manager. What exactly do you do?

SS: The core responsibility of a community manager is to ensure that the community is meeting the needs of its members. This means encouraging peer-to-peer help, sharing helpful technical content, and helping members stay up-to-date on the latest software techniques and features. It also means helping members navigate the functionality of the community, executing deliberate "missions" to build customer advocacy, and extending the value of the community via other social engagement channels.

Another key component of community management is often called measurement. But I tend to call it what it is: listening. I listen to our community members, to what they are saying to each other and to us. It's the best way to learn, make changes, modify systems and otherwise meet their needs. I want to give my company a human voice, one that shows we listen and we care.

PS: Generally speaking, how do online communities benefit organizations?

SS: They really are an extension of customer service. But online support communities are about more than providing technical answers to technical questions. They provide a place where users connect to each other and to the company. For SAS, our online support communities give us a way to live out our core value of being approachable. They're where relationships with SAS users form and are nurtured--where the people matter as much as the content. I think any company would consider that valuable.