Somewhere, a marketing guy with a little [enough to be dangerous] IT knowledge or a smart IT guy [with zero customer service experience] came up with a terrific idea: "Let's create a forum for our product. It's a win-win (hate that reference). We let users solve their own problems. We cut down on the calls to our service department, and we get great product feedback."
Really? Really!? That's what you want?
It must be. Because a lot of companies have embraced the forum as their sole customer service option. If you want a list, just search for "companies+len+won't+do+business+with" and you'll find a number of them.
I recently was called to consult to such a company. After they said that they were firm in retaining that method of communication, I passed.
"Do you guys ever read the forum?" I asked.
"Sure. Uh, our webmaster does."
"And what does he tell you?"
Boldly, "We get a weekly report!"
"What does that tell you?"
"...how many people joined the forum that week, how many returned and how many posts."
"What about content?"
With reserve, the reply was, "Uh, Jim, what else?"
Jim replies, "Well, when Tim [webmaster] reviews it, if he sees something interesting, he sends it to me."
"And you're the marketing guy?" I ask.
"So, what do you see that's interesting?"
Now, proud, Jim speaks loudly. "Are you kidding? It's a wealth of information. The feedback (there's that magic word they love to quote) tells me if we're saying the right things in our ads and to our distributors."
"Nice. What about problems - say two or three people who can't get a solution to a problem so they go bonkers on your product online?"
Here's a great retort: "Our manuals have so much detail...everything's addressed. And we make them available online."
I wanted to say, "Are you nuts?" but managed to utter, "I don't understand. If everything's answered in the manuals, why maintain the forums?"
This just keeps getting better...
"Because people are stupid."
That was where I knew I needed to distance myself from this group of cetrioli. (Shadrools for you folks in Jersey.)
But I stuck around because it was getting to be fun. "What about extra-site exposure?"
"Negatives about your company or a product on other sites. Ratings on Amazon and other sites? Ratings on sales sites like Home Depot, Lowe's, Penney's, whatever. How about complaints.com?" I rattled off a couple more. Do you know what's there? I mean, my experience tells me that those ratings are much more important than anything you say on your site or in a thirty."
"How would you value a 2-star rating on an Amazon sales page versus a negative post on your forum?"
A little more silence. My mind shot to My Cousin Vinny and the line, "I'm done with this guy." It took many years but I've learned to keep those thoughts to myself. It's still fun to think it.
Full disclosure: Scope+Focus, Inc. operates Emperor's Valet, a group that does an in-depth research for negatives on a company. Everything from the mainstream ratings mentioned above to nasties as would appear in someone's blog or facebook post. It's not a tough thing, luckily I have a guy - everyone needs a guy - who wrote a really neat search algorithm.
That said, I was going to do a search and get back to them with it as a freebie but sometimes you just think hell with it, let 'em languish.
Now if you guys in Jacksonville are reading this, well, now you know why we didn't hit it off.
And for the rest, please! I'm doing my usual Rodney Dangerfield begging. If you're relying on a forum to take care of your customer service, don't move. You're standing on a land mine. Well, maybe you should move. It's gonna go off either way.