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In Customer Service, In with the New Doesn’t Mean Out with the Old

Customer service websites can help B2B firms keep their costs down, but they must invest in traditional hotlines and tech support to satisfy their neediest clients.

Bottom LineCustomer service websites can help B2B firms keep their costs down, but they must invest in traditional hotlines and tech support to satisfy their neediest clients. 

In the old days, getting customer service usually meant picking up the phone, waiting on hold, and hoping that a one-on-one interaction with an employee would solve your problem. It wasn’t the most efficient system for either the customer or the firm; individual questions had to be fielded on a case-by-case basis. For companies, the result was redundancy and repetitive costs. Now, of course, the Internet enables customers to access FAQs, chat online with support staff, trade emails with company representatives, or troubleshoot with one another via message boards.

These newer modes of customer service have been studied in the business-to-consumer (B2C) model; however, there has been startlingly little research done on their importance in the business-to-business (B2B) realm. That is particularly surprising given that retaining and supporting commercial clients (especially the most valuable ones) is usually more important for firms’ growth and profitability than their B2C service. After all, B2B clients aren’t looking to make friends with other Internet users or talk up a brand’s reputation; they simply need to get solutions to their problems as fast as possible. And businesses are far more likely to make big purchases than the average consumer, which increases the need for B2B firms to respond efficiently to clients’ problems.

B2B clients aren’t looking to make friends with other Internet users or talk up a brand’s reputation.

Recently, many firms have established their own peer-to-peer problem-solving (P3) communities and forums, hoping to encourage B2B clients to interact and support one another, with the occasional nudge from specialists employed by the firm. Companies such as Apple, Dell, HP, Intel, Microsoft, Oracle, and Sprint have overseen flourishing P3 portals for B2B clients, which attract hundreds of thousands of tech support requests each day. Cisco even gives P3 members open access to its knowledge network, bringing users and employees together to exchange information about existing and forthcoming products. In these scenarios, clients end up taking over many of the duties that were historically handled by the customer service department — ideally reducing corporate costs and co-creating knowledge in the process.

But setting up and maintaining these sites isn’t easy or cheap. So in order to be worth the effort, they have to be effective at satisfying B2B customers’ requests and cutting down on traditional customer support services. And according to a new study by Utah State University’s Sterling Bone and his colleagues, clients’ participation in these communities does indeed reduce a firm’s reliance on old-fashioned customer service — as long as users don’t become so reliant on help that they also swamp traditional channels with their need for advice.

To determine the impact of P3 communities on traditional B2B customer services, the authors partnered with a Fortune 100 firm that specializes in enterprise software. The company boasts a variety of customer support mechanisms, including traditional call centers, one-on-one Web agents, and more than 200 P3 portals devoted to specific products and services. Over four months, Bone et al. analyzed data from more than 2,500 clients, representing a diverse set of industries, who participated in the company’s global P3 community.

After controlling for clients’ past use of traditional customer service transactions and their recent experience in the online community, the authors found that users who helped themselves (by posting questions) and assisted others (by responding to their queries) on P3 forums were less likely to turn to traditional customer support outlets. Customers who searched forum threads for previously posted information also placed fewer phone calls and contacted the firm’s Web agents less often.

But companies shouldn’t encourage their clients to be too active on their peer-to-peer message boards. Customers who signed up for a great many P3 communities and logged in with great frequency also leaned on traditional customer service outlets much more than other customers, the authors found. This differs from the patterns of the B2C online support community, which seems better able to substitute users’ expertise for corporate assistance — presumably because of the value that consumers extract from their social interaction.

The trick for managers, then, seems to be creating a balance for their customers — developing and moderating P3 systems that can handle the essential problems faced by clients without allowing them to become so dependent on outside help that they overtask call centers or Web-based support staff if their online questions to peers can’t be answered.

To create such a balance, managers of B2B companies should try to facilitate firm-hosted communities that help direct users to solutions as quickly as possible and not lead them to log in too often. By understanding what each P3 community needs, managers can glean an understanding of which types of interactions reduce clients’ needs for formal customer service channels. They can also compile knowledge databases that reduce the need for consumers to interact directly with the company.

And managers should pay special attention to “super users.” In the sample studied, these experts accounted for only 1 to 2 percent of community members but posted about 40 to 60 percent of the content. By reaching out to these super users and cultivating their stature on message boards and forums, companies may find a shortcut to answering most of the community’s most pressing concerns and avoid overwhelming their own staff.

Source:How Customer Participation in B2B Peer-to-Peer Problem-Solving Communities Influences the Need for Traditional Customer Service,” by Sterling A. Bone (Utah State University), Paul W. Fombelle (Northeastern University), Kristal R. Ray (Utah State University), and Katherine N. Lemon (Boston College), Journal of Service Research, Feb. 2015, vol. 18, no. 1

Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

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