Providing stellar support was never easy for Nick Bradbury's Nashville-based company, Bradbury Software—he was the only employee, after all. So he created an online forum where his customers would help one another.
Bradbury is part of a new breed of business owner using customer-to-customer Web forums to enhance or even replace traditional support. "People like being seen as experts in their fields, says Bill Rose, executive director of San Diego's Service & Support Professionals Association. "That's one of the reasons peer support forums are one of the fastest-growing service options in technical and nontechnical industries alike.
Bradbury is something of a customer forum guru. His company's service center features a user-supported forum where more than 2,000 members answer one another's questions about FeedDemon, a news aggregator, and TopStyle, a Web design program. The site's blogs feature tips from "power users on, say, how to use FeedDemon to search apartment listings.
Bradbury says customer forums help create a community of loyal customers and are also a source of crucial market research. (He's a feedback fanatic who spends at least an hour a day combing customer comments for ideas about product improvements.) Some customers balk at any attempt to steer them away from live help. To counter this, Bradbury mentions forum topics in his products' user guides.
You don't have to be a software genius to set up a forum—Jelsoft Enterprises, based in Berkshire, England, sells online forum software for $160, and Lewis Media, based in Waterloo, Canada, offers free downloads.
The cost is minimal, and the benefits are priceless, says Reid Mason, marketing director at PMI Audio Group, a manufacturer of professional audio equipment based in Gardena, Calif. PMI's peer-to-peer forums free up employees at the 10-person company to focus their efforts elsewhere. In many cases, instead of laboriously swapping e-mails with confused customers, employees can simply point them to archived forum discussions where questions have already been hashed out in detail. Like Bradbury, PMI also uses the forum to garner product development ideas. For example, when the company announced that it was creating a new desktop recording console, users fired back with ideas for improving connectivity to other audio devices, which led PMI to build extra connections into the design. "Giving users what they need will have a significant impact on the number of consoles we sell, Mason says.
This past May, Bradbury sold his company to news aggregator giant NewsGator Technologies. He'll serve as one of NewsGator's product architects. Bradbury's intensive customer focus is a big part of what makes his software great, says Greg Reinacker, NewsGator's founder and CTO. "Nick's great at building a rapport with his customers, he says. NewsGator has hired someone else to head up support services for Bradbury's products from now on, but his customers shouldn't worry. The new support person is one of their own—Jack Brewster, a Bradbury Software forum member who has posted 600 messages in the past 18 months.
Nick Bradbury built a Web forum with 2,000 users by:
- Posting stories related to industry news to drive traffic
- Spending one hour each day combing customer comments for suggestions on improving products
- Warning rude or inappropriate users to cease and desist