Many companies supplement their customer service with online forums where dedicated customers help other consumers. Customers work for free in order to achieve status in online communities, according to a new thesis. (Illustration photo: Microstock)

Customers and companies benefit from online support communities

Customers get better answers and companies experience fewer complaints. And superfans who help other customers gain status.

Why do consumers use online communities for customer support, and how do they participate?

Njål Sivertstøl, a researcher at the Norwegian School of Economics (NHH), studied the online forums of two European phone companies to find out.

More and more companies open their own online communities where customers help each other. New customers get answers from other dedicated customers.

“It’s not only cheaper for companies, it also increases customer loyalty,” says Sivertstøl.

Dedicated customers dedicate time
An example of online dialogue. A customer wonders how to update to 4G, and receives guidance from another customer. (Photo: (Screenshot of Vodafone))

Why hire more customer service staff when you can get your customers to work for free? That thought has clearly crossed the minds of many big brand name suppliers.

Online forums are not intended to replace customer service departments, but they can be a useful supplement. Experienced customers answer other customers’ questions for free.

“These are dedicated users, who are self-taught experts on products. Some of them are regulars who put in hours each week to guide customers on a product's technical features,” says Sivertstøl.

Sivertstøl interviewed clients and employees of the phone companies and ran surveys among forum participants. Then he analysed the content of their responses, and found that some of the most devoted expert customers volunteer up to 40 hours of their spare time weekly.

Status matters
Status explains why many people work for companies for free. Virgin Media’s website displays the profiles of the top ten most helpful customers. (Photo: (Screenshot from Virgin Media))

He wondered what the allure was for private individuals to donate so much free time for a company they don’t work for. His survey revealed that many people just like to contribute the detailed knowledge they have and help other less experienced users.

Others like to show off their expertise and gain status and recognition in these environments. It’s seen as attractive by other technology types, Silvertstøl says.

These people are often passionate about mobile technology, or technology in general. Engineering students also use forums that are relevant to their studies, and retirees enjoy using their professional experience on them.

Some people are spurred to contribute by a desire to see their profile on a forum’s top-ten list or to be admired.

How it works
“Online customer support forums are monitored by company employees, but many customers can get better answers from the forum than from customer-service employees,” says researcher Njål Sivertstøl. (Photo: private)

Maybe you’re wondering how to use a special feature on your new mobile phone, or you have a product that you can’t get to work. You can submit a question on the company’s customer community website and look for the answer to your question. Or, if the question hasn’t been asked yet, another customer who is online may answer it.

Customers can also comment on and correct previous answers. The discussion remains online and can be read by other customers who are struggling with the same issue.

Supervised by staff

Isn’t there a risk of wrong answers or a barrage of criticism for a company’s product?

According to Sivertstøl, customers discipline each other to a certain degree by correcting others’ responses. And companies have employees who operate the online forums.

Staff members monitor the dialogue between customers. Some participate in the dialogue — they correct or remove incorrect answers, elaborate or answer the most complicated questions. Others are moderators who ensure that customers treat each other with respect, and remove unfair posts and advertising links.

A boost to company finances and customer loyalty

Installing a customer community website isn’t free, but the company’s call centre receives fewer calls, and the company requires fewer employees.

The Barclaycard credit card company claims they have reduced customer complaints by 50 per cent since implementing an online forum.

“In many cases, customers can also get better answers from other customers. You can’t expect that employees at the call centre know all the products well enough to respond to all the questions,” says Sivertstøl.

But customers still prefer when employees also participate in the discussion, he says.

Other studies have shown that companies with online forums enjoy greater customer loyalty, both from the questioners and from the responders.

Loyalty increases the customers’ urge to buy more products from the company.

Big in the USA

The USA, UK and Thailand are among the countries where customer community websites are becoming an important addition to companies’ own customer service departments. The Sephora cosmetic chain noted that customers who use their online forum buy ten per cent more cosmetics from the company than other customers do.

Thailand and the United States have so many residents that they quickly build enough customers to assist those who ask questions, says Sivertstøl. This may explain why the phenomenon is not as widespread in Norway yet.

The most important thing for a viable online forum is to have a dedicated core of regular users who know a product inside out.

New product input

Online community forums can also act as a channel for consumers to participate in the development of new products. Sometimes participation happens by chance, as when a company snaps up improvement ideas from the forum discussion.

“Many customers are incredibly skilled and knowledgeable, and want to take an active role as consumers,” says Sivertstøl, who now works as a researcher at Telenor Norway.

He says some businesses also invite particularly interested customers to submit their ideas for the development of new features. Brand manufacturers want input for new designs on upcoming models.

As an example, Sivertstøl mentions a US car company that has only produced one car so far.

They have now invited customers to submit proposals for the design of a new car. “Maybe we’ll have the world's first consumer-designed car soon,” he says.


Njål Sivertstøl defended his thesis at NHH, titled "Online Communities for Customer Support: A Study of Participation and its Antecedents"; Friday, 12 June 2015 .


Read the Norwegian version of this article at

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