How We Manage It: A Q&A Interview With a Wildly Successful Community Manager

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A conversation with Yola's Community Support Manager, Monique Viljoen-Platts. Learn about her secret sauce for creating and growing a vibrant and successful customer support community on Get Satisfaction.

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How We Manage It: A Q&A Interview With a Wildly Successful Community Manager

  1. 1. How We Manage It: A Q&A Interview With a Wildly Successful Community Manager May 5, 2009 Amy Muller Chief Community Officer, Get Satisfaction Monique Viljoen-Platts Customer Support Manager, Yola Amy Muller: First tell us a little about Yola. What does Yola do? How many customers do you have? Moinque Viljoen-Platts: Yola (formerly known as SynthaSite) is a free online website builder that allows anyone to easily build, publish and host a website. Our site builder has a drag and drop interface and you don't need any coding knowledge to build a website. We have about 1.7 million registered customers at this time. Whatever your reason for wanting or needing a website, Yola's special purpose is to help you reach your dreams! AM: You've done a great job really engaging your customers in the community and fostering a very helpful and jovial tone. Can you pinpoint the thing or set of things you did to bring that about? MVP: Thank you very much. I love that someone looking at our community describes it as engaged, helpful and jovial. That is just what we were hoping for! There are a few principles that are key for nurturing this atmosphere in a community: 1. Speak in your own voice. Be authentic. Don't be afraid to have real conversations with people. Encourage other team members to do the same. Although we strive to give a unified message about our passion for our product and for customer service, we each have our own personality and style. Don't be a control freak - if you are it will be the death of you and your community. 2. Bring your sense of humor! Take your job seriously but never take yourself too seriously. Laugh at yourself, admit your mistakes. Your life will be much less stressful if you do. 3. Be kind and require kindness and courtesy from the members of your community. If someone takes the time to engage with your community
  2. 2. for any length of time, they have given you a gift which demands your gratitude and respect. From the beginning we have tried to affirm all questions that are asked and all answers that are offered. It doesn't always work out as you hope. People don't always realize that their comment might be hurtful to someone. Pointing out how the comment comes across and inviting them to rephrase it often gets the conversation back on track. 4. Live and teach hospitality. Understand that communities can have a dark side. The more passionate your community is, the more potential there is for hostility to newcomers. You want to make sure that your online community is a safe space for long time customers as well as first time visitors. 5. Say sorry often! Growing a product and service in a public space can be painful at times. It will humble you every single day. Mistakes will be made. Misunderstandings will arise. Apologize freely and sincerely. Do what you can to make it right and move on. AM: How many people do you have helping on the community management team? Do they fulfill other roles within the company as well? MVP: From the beginning customer service has been a top priority for our company. Our support community consists of 46 official reps and approximate 8500 customers at last count. We are fortunate enough to have a team of six people dedicated to customer service and community management. This team is responsible for our individual email support, community support, and support documentation. The rest of the company also participates from time to time as subject matter experts when there is a question in their area. Even our CEO answers questions in Get Satisfaction! In my opinion the first thing a community manager needs to focus on is building a team. Your team might consist of the other people in your company who play different roles, but help out in the area of their expertise. If you have the resources, hire help. But above all, start building your customer community from day one! They will become your community management team. Don't ever fall into the trap of thinking that you are too short-staffed to have a community. The fewer financial and human resources your business has, the less you can afford not to build your online community! AM: Where does community fit in Yola's overall customer engagement & support strategy? What other channels of support does Yola provide?
  3. 3. MVP: We regard community as absolutely central to our customer engagement and support strategy. We have big dreams for Yola - we are in this for the long haul and one day soon we are going to have tens of millions of customers. How do you remain a customer engaging, rather than a customer avoiding, company when you are dealing with numbers like that? The challenge for me as a community support manager is to build a support infrastructure that can offer top class customer support to a massive and rapidly growing user base without hiring an army of support staff. The only way to get our support infrastructure to scale is to turn to the community. We have three primary support channels [slide 4]: * Our community in Get Satisfaction and Twitter * Our searchable help files and tutorials * Our helpdesk for individual email support Each of these has a very specific and important function. The key function of community is to engage with our customers and foster meaningful long term relationships. It allows us to feel the pulse of the people who use our product on a daily basis. We gain insight into how people use our software - what they want and need from us. Community also allows us to meet people's deeper needs for connection, motivation, guidance and encouragement. And of course we help our support infrastructure to scale by harnessing the power of the community. Our helpfiles and tutorials are designed to provide instant answers for people using Yola. Our helpdesk software has a very powerful knowledgebase and search engine that allows us to organize our content, instantly update it, and expose it to our customers in a searchable form. It also has an inbuilt feedback mechanism where customers can rate a page and tell us whether they found it helpful or not. Our helpdesk software tracks all the search terms people enter. Knowing what questions people are asking and providing the answers on an instant basis is another key support strategy. Finally - our helpdesk trouble ticket system. This system will always form part of our support strategy although in many ways I regard it as an enemy because it is the most difficult to scale. Our aim is to use this channel primarily for troubleshooting very complex problems that are specific to a particular customer, addressing issues where there are privacy concerns and nurturing customers who are new to the internet
  4. 4. and perhaps don't have the confidence to use social media just yet. However, we encourage the use of our community support at all times, and we get very excited when a customer moves from using email support to community support! So as you can see, the community plays a vital role in both our short and long term strategy for customer support. AM: So most communities don't start at the point Yola's is now. What was your customer community like when you first started? How has it changed? How long do you think it took before you started to notice it really gel? MVP: I would really like to encourage anyone who wants to understand the life cycle of a community to listen to the second webcast in this series: Reducing Support Costs by Turning to the Community. This webcast explains the connect, cultivate, curate and care stages that need to take place in a successful community. When I listened to your presentation I was really impressed by how closely the four stages you outlined matched our experience with building the Yola community up over a period of a little more than a year. I am sure other community managers would say the same. Of course you will be doing all four all the time, but a different one will dominate depending on where you are in the life cycle of your community. You are quite right - when I first joined Yola (then Synthasite) our community was nowhere near where it is today. We had only just launched our product as a public beta. We had a Google Group on our website where there was some community discussion. But the threads became inactive pretty quickly and the group mainly consisted of a very technical audience who were interested in reviewing this new product on the market. Not very inviting to our real target customers: people with a non-technical background who needed websites and also needed a lot of help along the way! One of the earliest and best decisions we made was to use Get Satisfaction for our online community. That's where the fun began! After creating our company presence, our first challenge was to seed the conversation and connect customers with the community. We did several things. I posted as many topics as I could. I created a series of FAQs where I asked and answered questions about site building with Yola. If someone emailed me a question in support I turned it into an FAQ and posted it in Get Satisfaction to try to get the information out to more
  5. 5. people. We also linked to Get Satisfaction from our support page, the help menu in our site builder, all our support emails, our blog and our monthly newsletter. Very gradually people started to show up. In the beginning it was all about them asking questions and me answering them. I used to race to answer those questions as if my life depended on it. I wanted to make asking a question in Get Satisfaction the most rewarding experience a customer could have on the web. I did Get Satisfaction first and support emails second. I got very little sleep. All questions were affirmed as being important and worthwhile. It worked really well - people started asking questions like eager four year olds! But I soon realized that no one was answering any questions. This is where I really wanted to get to. I became tired of feeling like the only contestant on a never-ending game show! So I started trying to consciously encourage customers to answer each other. Everyone knows that there are no stupid questions. Hopefully your grade one teacher tells you that. But I wanted to let everyone know that there are no stupid answers either! So I posted a topic with this as the title and encouraged customers to start helping each other out. [slide 6] Then I slowed my own response time down a little when I thought it was a question someone else would know the answer to and posted a big thank you to any customer who helped out. I remember the first time it happened I was so excited I emailed the whole company! That was about two months after we first started our Get Satisfaction community. A big break through was when a customer started a thread inviting people to share the links to their sites so that the community could offer feedback. We included a link to this thread in our emails when we answered a question about publishing and it soon became our most popular thread. Once things started to take off a little bit, we grew our team. Ruth joined us in April 2008 and Marije and Kershnee joined in June. At the beginning of this year Emmy and Jeremy joined us. These people are great allies in getting quick responses to customers, keeping the conversation going and linking new posts to relevant existing posts. After a few months we did start to notice a reduction in repetitive questions. One of the exciting things was when customers started copying and pasting answers we had given elsewhere, or posting links to relevant threads saying: quot;Your question has been answered herequot;. They were starting to become familiar with our content and could help make it work for us. It felt the community really starting to gel about 7-9 months after we started. There were active conversations, customers helping other
  6. 6. customers, lots of feature requests and product insights and one or two trolls. Our baby had grown up! Right now we are in the curate and care stages of our community. We are innovating around better ways to organize our content and incentivise our community members to keep up the great job they are doing for us. Anyone looking to start a community should not expect it to happen overnight, but if you do the things taught in this webcast series, and use a great tool like Get Satisfaction that has all the right ingredients for success, you will be surprised at how quickly it will come together. AM: You've got four champions by my last count. What was it about each of them that made you take notice and think quot;they need a champions badgequot;? Did you do anything prior to that moment to foster those relationships? Did they grow into those roles or were any of them just instant quot;championquot; material? What do you do for them to keep them participating and helping? MVP: The champion feature in Get Satisfaction is the one I have looked forward to the most and that I am most excited about. The first way we identify a potential champion is when we see them moving from asking for help for themselves to offering help to others. We also look for the quality of the responses: are they knowledgeable about our product, can they communicate information in a clear and helpful manner, are they kind and compassionate and do people respond well to their advice? We have kept the bar for champions very high. There are many potential candidates, but so far we have only elected 4. In addition to having all of the above skills, these 4 represent and archetype - a superhero! Ed is so prolific and tirelessly helpful. He is an eternal optimist. He is a good samaritan and also great cheerleader for Yola, and for people building their sites. He is a fountain of information and a great innovator. He takes Yola past it's limits and finds solutions we have never dreamed of and he is generous in sharing this information with others. Peter is what you would describe as a Ranger has a number of attributes that I would look for in a community manager. He is very alert to what is going on with the community, almost on a minute by minute basis. He lets us know when someone is struggling, alerts us to potential trolls, or a thread that is starting to turn nasty, and is one of the first reporters when
  7. 7. our service might be down. He also has endless patience to research and troubleshoot questions and doesn't give up until a solution is found. There is no single archetype that fits Boomer. We will have to invent a new one for him. He is another really knowledgeable and helpful person and a great innovator. But one of his traits that is the most valuable to us is his fabulous sense of humor. Boomer has rescued us on some of our most difficult threads by making a really clever joke that just diffuses the situation or puts a troll in their place. His jokes are hilariously funny, but always kind and fair as well. Littleus is the newest community member to be made a champ and is also turning into a real good samaritan. She is really sincere and eager to help out. She is very passionate about her own site, as are all the champs, and shares her learning as she goes. We find that people connect really deeply with her aspirations and relate to her extremely well. She is great at answering some of the long tail questions we don't manage to get to. Having people like this in your corner is something money just can't buy and something we could never do without at Yola! I also need to say a word about the champion we hired. Emmy first came to our attention as an enthusiastic site builder and poster in Get Satisfaction. We had a job opening for someone in Cape Town and she applied. However, she is based in Wisconsin. Because we knew a little about her through our online interactions, we thought it could work. As a job interview I asked her to actively answer questions in Get Satisfaction. We watched her for a couple of weeks. We then invited her for a series of skype interviews. But if the truth be told she already had the job based on her work in Get Satisfaction. To this day none of the Cape Town staff have met Emmy in person, but she was a sure bet and has fit in very well because of the excellent recruiting opportunity Get Satisfaction provided for us. I really recommend this approach for any company that is looking to hire a community manager or a support team. By the way, Emmy is coming to Cape Town in a few weeks, and we are all really excited about finally meeting her! AM: What's been your biggest challenge as a community manager? MVP: On a personal level my biggest challenge is to find balance in my life. When you build a community from the ground up it takes an enormous amount of effort in the beginning and can become all-
  8. 8. consuming. This is ok in the short term, but the rest of your life soon starts to show signs of neglect. The challenge is knowing when it is time to start letting go and let others share the load. About 9 months in I was close to burnout. When you have dark circles round your eyes and your colleagues are begging you to take a real holiday and threatening to disable all your logins unless you do, you know it is time to make some changes! Hopefully other community managers will be smarter than me and not let it get to that point. Community management is a marathon, not a sprint, and you can only run it in relays! AM: What's been the most difficult situation you've had to handle so far? And how did you handle it? What was the outcome? MVP: There have been a few difficult situations where a customer is really angry because a feature is not available, or they have experienced a catastrophic bug. These situations are always challenging. However, I would say one of the most difficult situations is when we have an outage and our site builder or our published sites go down for any length of time. When you are a web service and you have an outage it is like you are failing all of your customers at once. For some of them it might not be a big deal, but you always know that you are going to seriously inconvenience a large number of people all at the same time. We have worked out a process for dealing with these situations which we refer to as our quot;firedrill.quot; This includes a strategy for communicating internally about what is going on, fixing it and getting this information out to customers as fast as possible. 1. Make sure everyone on your team is empowered to play their role. Rehearse it before hand so that there is no confusion. 2. Let customers know there is a problem and that you are working on it (the status tool is very helpful for this) 3. Make a promise and keep it. Clearly indicate where people can go to get updates on the situation and pass on information as quickly as you can. 4. Don't be defensive. Say you are sorry. The situation is unacceptable to your customers and it should be to you as well. Admit this freely and let them know what you are going to do to make it better. 5. Announce when the problem is solved and thank people for reporting it, and for their patience while you worked on it. The tone in an online community can really degenerate quickly when you experience an outage, but we have found that if you build a reputation for being concerned and on top of things, and if you are open and clear
  9. 9. in your communication, your champions will step in with statements of support, and reassurance for concerned customers. A potential disaster can actually become really positive publicity for your company. I feel very sorry for companies who don't understand this and who remain tight lipped and defensive in these situations. They are missing out on one of their most important relationship building opportunities. AM: What do you like most about being a community manager? MVP: I love seeing growth in people. Watching someone move from being an angry to satisfied customer or from struggling to successful. When this happens you feel like you are having a real impact and achieving your special purpose. AM: What has been the most rewarding experience you've had so far with your community? MVP: Watching the community grow to the point where it is today. In the early days I dreamt it might be possible to have a community that is engaged, happy and productive, helps to reduce support costs and offers valuable product development insights. I would say watching this dream turn into a reality had been a supremely rewarding experience. AM: What's your favorite example of a customer helping another customer? MVP: There are many great examples. One of my favorite started with a thread you alluded to in one of your webcasts. The quot;Synthajinglequot; contest. Peter kind of took us by surprise with this. Without warning, he announced that there would be a prize for the best jingle about site building with SynthaSite. I am not sure if he meant it as a joke, but we loved the idea and decided to run with it. As it was kind of impromptu we had to come up with a prize quickly. We settled on a free domain name for a year. One of our most active customers, Lee, won the contest. We really struggled to get him to claim his prize and sent him a few emails offering the free domain. When he eventually got back to us he said he had been looking for someone to donate his domain name to. He donated it to a customer named Grace. She has a lovely website and has been a really positive person in our community, but she didn't have her own domain name. Thanks to Lee she does now. I love this story because the whole thing was done by the community - and we just came along for the ride.
  10. 10. AM: What point of connection outside your customer community do you think drives the most traffic to your community space? MVP: The support page on our website, and the signatures in our support emails. We also use the live topics widget to draw customers into Get Satisfaction by showing them the latest updates from the company. AM: In your experience, which commandments from our 10 Commandments of Community Management have proven to be the most valuable / true? Are there any you'd add to the list? MVP: All of them are important. Of special importance to us have been commandment number 6: make it personal. We try to be really sincere and open in our interactions. We don't hide behind corporate language and we try to be as transparent with our community as possible. We also love commandment number 10: Assemble your Justice League! It really is about drawing in as many creative, positive people as you can. They will manage the community for you. One of my favorite sayings when we have a difficult thread is: quot;Let the community get itquot; So far they have never let us down. If I were to add an 11th commandment I think it should be [slide 11]: Don't be afraid to take the risk of actively building an online community. There are dangers in doing this, but it is much safer than not having one. - What kind of metrics have you gathered to prove your community's success to the rest of the company? Have you seen a reduction in the amount of traffic going to your more traditional support channels? If so, how much? Our net promoter score is a really important one and one that the board and our investors take careful notice of. Also the number of customers and our unique visitors. The ability to provide genuine unsolicted testimonials from the praise we receive from customers has been very valuable to our marketing team in particular and our business as a whole. We have definitely seen a reduction in the number of support emails with more and more people finding their own answers or turning to the community. There has been an explosive growth in the amount of traffic going to the community, especially in the last 3 or 4 months. The community is really proving it's value in providing the answer for the long tail questions which we could never manage via traditional support channels.
  11. 11. AM: Has your team been able to feed product insight back in to the company from the community? MVP: Yes, definitely! A number of features have been developed in direct response to conversations we have had in Get Satisfaction and many are still being planned. One typical example: We made it too easy for people to delete their sites. The button was too prominent and too many people were clicking it unintentionally, ignoring the warning message and deleting their websites by mistake. As you can imagine this was an absolute customer service disaster. We turned to the community and asked how we thought we should address this problem. We implemented the best suggestions and since doing so the trouble tickets related to this problem have dropped to ZERO! AM: How does the rest of the company view the community? Do you find that you have widespread acceptance as a valuable resource / business unit in the company? If so, was it always that way or did you have to work at it? How did you go about that? MVP: The rest of the company views the community very positively and definitely sees it as a valuable resource. Everyone understands that the function of our community is to drive customer satisfaction, help with customer retention, shape our online reputation and provide valuable insights that can be fed into product development. What has been most helpful is that our CEO, Vinny Lingham, as well as a number of other key people in the company, fully understand the importance of the community and support our efforts 100%. Vinny requires everyone who joins our company to sign up as an official rep in Get Satisfaction. No Excuses! If you want your company to embrace your community, be a champion for it. Call out the best praise threads, the biggest customer satisfaction success stories, and gather data on how the community is reducing support costs and driving customer satisfaction. The rest of the company might not be instant converts but if you keep at it most people will eventually see the light.

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