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.
How We Manage It: A Q&A Interview With a Wildly Successful Community Manager
How We Manage It: A Q&A Interview With a Wildly Successful
May 5, 2009
Chief Community Officer, Get Satisfaction
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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-
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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.