Thursday, August 28, 2008

Groundswell Book Club Part 4: Customer Support

This week, we're covering the fourth objective in Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff's book Groundswell: supporting (chapter 8). This chapter is perhaps the most surprising in the book, because it focuses on tools and techniques that predate Web 2.0 by years: customer support forums.
Groundswell focuses on peer-to-peer support mechanisms—ways that institutions answer customer’s questions by connecting them to each other.

Why should museums care about customer support? Because this is fundamentally about connecting visitors with each other in discussion about the most pressing issues related to the institution. And that's something I think we can all do a better job supporting.

But first, some basics about customer support. Support infrastructure is a major cost center for big business. The average call to a call center costs $6 - $20 depending on the nature of the call (basic vs. technical support). While I’ve never heard of a museum with such a heavy call volume that they’ve outsourced their front desk to Bangalore, many museums, small and large, suffer at the phones. Many have implemented phone trees that slowly and torturously give visitors every piece of information except the one they want. Human contact is hard to come by, and while websites and phone systems provide the basics, there are many visitors with complex questions—often more interesting questions—who are turned away by the frustrating inability to reach a real person.

What if that real person was another visitor? If you have a question about whether an exhibition is appropriate for your eight year-old or how long the line is to bike across the tightrope, why not get your answer from someone in a similar situation?

The support forum has become a cornerstone of many businesses which benefit from the eagerness of some customers to answer each other’s questions. As Charlene and Josh point out, when a customer answers someone else’s question on an online support forum, she doesn’t just solve one person’s problem. Her useful comment is archived and can be accessed by hundreds of other people with the same problem. This spectator effect means that the online forums don’t just provide direct support—they create growing bodies of knowledge about products. All the content is provided for free, and the result is far fewer frustrated customers sitting on hold.

The reason museums resist peer-to-peer visitor support is fear of erroneous and unvetted information. What if a visitor asks a factual question and someone gives them the wrong answer? Or worse, what if someone uses the forum as a venue to promote his own (off-message) agenda?

It’s interesting to address these fears by looking at how other businesses manage their support forums. There are three key factors—volume of participation, implementation of reputation indices, and content framing--that keep forum conversations on-topic and appropriate. Let's look at each in greater detail.

1. You need lots of active users to make a support forum work. Charlene and Josh say the average business should expect one to five percent of customers to participate in support forums, with the actual figure coming down to how much people care about the products and how active they are as participants in social technology. If only 1% of your customers are going to talk, you need to have enough customers such that 1% constitutes a reasonable discussion base. Support forums that work well work quickly--you post a question and get a relevant response within a few hours. These forums rely on thousands of users such that your obscure printer question will find an answer in a reasonable amount of time. If there's no one on the site to respond, then putting a question on the forum is like talking to a dead voicemail box.

For this reason, Charlene and Josh point out that support forums take a lot of staff time--at least at the beginning. You want to set the tone for the forum as well as a precedent for providing timely responses to questions. In the case of the computer company Dell's extensive support website, the company began with 30 staff moderating and participating in the forum, but were eventually able to cut that to five people. These five people can moderate a community with 9,000 new posts per week, because the forum mechanism is robust enough to mostly manage itself.

Most museums don't have high enough online participation to sustain a major support effort. However, there are at least two ways for museums to get volume. The first is to put the museum content in a venue that does have mass participation. Consider what happened when the Library of Congress put some of their photo collections on Flickr. Thousands of people viewed the photos and supported each other's questions about the images. Their commentary included both factual and erroneous information, but the sheer volume of participation led the users to parse out what was and wasn't correct... without any intervention by the institutional authority.

Another way museums can address the volume problem is by utilizing their in-person audiences. Most support forums are only frequented by people who have a problem. In museums, those "problems" could be more general questions of interpretation. I could see support mechanisms working on the floor in which visitors could post questions about individual exhibits to be answered by other visitors walking by. In this way, each exhibit becomes a specific "product" with its own small conversation thread. Even a few people participating in each would significantly increase the perception of an overall conversation happening on the floor, and repeat exposure to the forum mechanism might induce a higher percentage of participation.

2. Reputation indices reward good behavior and cultivate active participation. A reputation index is a scoring system that provides "psychic income" to people who answer each other's questions. The reputation index can be in the form of points, levels, or symbols. Dell uses bronze, silver, gold, platinum to identify users based on the number of posts they have logged; eBay uses stars. The point is not to simply reward people for their volume of participation but also for its quality. A good reputation index allows users to rate each other's answers' usefulness, so that future spectators will see the most relevant answers bubble to the top of any thread. You can learn more about designing reputation indices from this post.

Museums have built-in opportunities for reputation indices--memberships and visit tracking. I've argued that museums should find ways to use game mechanics to encourage visitors to "level up" in their use of and participation in the museum. It helps people feel personally rewarded and recognized, and it aligns them more closely with the institution. Finally, it gives the museum an opportunity to use its authority to bestow "psychic income" on those it deems most worthy contributors, thus encouraging the conversations to go in preferred directions.

3. Clear content frames help people know where to find what they need. Product-related and tech support forums are incredibly specific. Most support forums are made for just-in-time learning: I have a problem, I know the error code or product name, and so I know where to go to search for an answer or post my question. In the museum world, the questions are less clear. You don't have an urgent need to know which artifacts are included in an upcoming exhibition the way you need to know how to program your garage door opener. I think this is one of the biggest obstacles to forums becoming viable for museums--there is no specific problem around which visitors can cluster.

But Charlene and Josh have a recommendation for this. They suggest that it is more important to create a support platform that allows your users to have the discussions they want to have than the ones specifically related to your services. For example, the chapter starts with a case study of a community blogging platform, CarePages, that Mass General Hospital (MGH) uses to allow patients to maintain private communities with their loved ones. Patients don't use CarePages to interact with doctors or manage their care. They use it to let their friends and family know how they are doing and get support and love from those folks without the added exhaustion that frequent phone calls can bring. The hospital didn't create a better way for patients to get their questions about medical care answered. They created a better way for patients to be supported by their peers.

There are also some support forums, like Yahoo! Answers, which are incredibly general. The concept behind Yahoo! Answers is that you can ask anything and someone out there will give you some useful answers, whether you ask "what makes a good museum?" or "how do I get my bowels in motion?" The questions are answered so quickly by thousands of answerers that individual questions only stay active for answering for about 4 days before being archived. Each question may only yield a few answers, but users are motivated by the authenticity of the responses--even if it's just a couple opinions from strangers.

While the content may be off-topic, the general concept behind these sites is strongly tied to the idea of the museum as a place to exchange ideas and get all kinds of information. As museums become more inclusive of different stories and ways of knowing, promoting visitor-to-visitor support mechanisms may be even more valuable.

There are some beginnings out there. The Science Museum of Minnesota community site Science Buzz is a sort of hybrid--a supportive community organized loosely around science. While there isn't a specific question and answer component of the site, it is a place where people come together to share stories, ideas, and reactions and feel rewarded for doing so.

There's also the opportunity to use forums and other tools for industry support. Many of us use listservs to get answers to our museum-related questions and find out what others are doing. Some use wikis to share their work and provide a collaborative support space for like-minded projects. Which of these tools work well for you, and how could you imagine inviting visitors into those environments?

What are the biggest questions your visitors have (which aren't answered by a basic spin through the website)? What would make you eager--or unwilling--to to allow other visitors to answer those questions?

2 comments, add yours!:

Patricia Martin said...

Wow! This is incredibly valuable content, Nina. My friend and fellow blogger George Needham at OCLC turned me on to your blog. So glad he did.
Patricia Martin

Anonymous said...

You ask about obstacles. There is a fundamental misunderstanding out there in museum world.
People are concerned with issues of maintaining the integrity and the legal safety of their institutions. They think that blogging and social utility are not valid unless they follow familiar lines of campaign and interruption marketing.
I know the demographics of our museum. I know I have personally spent time with people who have poured over specific parts and recanted stories and drew conclusions about what they were looking at and wished they had more time to spend with the objects. I think a forum can be generated in a blog format for small museums.
In a living history site, curious items from collections could be posted looking for response and engagement.
People are also always curious about the history of their personal belongings. An ask the curator site could be a great place to start getting our audiences empowered to embrace more self supporting efforts like forums.