Patricia Seybold is the author of Outside Innovation and Customers.com. Here, she answers an entrepreneur's question about setting up an online forum to solicit customer feedback.
Q. Is it a good idea to set up a customer forum on my company's website? If so, what's the best way to create one and police its content?
Patricia Seybold responds:
If your company has at least several hundred customers and they care about your product, an online community is a good idea. Giving customers a forum for sharing their suggestions and experiences lets them know that you value their opinions. Your company, meanwhile, will benefit from all that customer feedback. Setting up an online community is relatively easy. Basic forum software from Community Server and vBulletin is cheap (less than $300) and user-friendly, though your graphic designer or Web developer will have to spend some time integrating the forum into your existing site and giving it a look and feel that complements your brand. Before launching the forum, create a policy that explains your expectations regarding offensive language and otherwise inappropriate postings.
Once the forum is up and running, don't let it turn into a ghost town. To encourage participation, make sure it is easy to find on your site and promote it both online and off in e-mail alerts, newsletters, and the like. To keep the conversation flowing, appoint one of your staffers to be a part-time facilitator and require your top executives to spend a couple of hours each week reading and responding to customer comments. You can also add some vitality by linking to related content from other sites.
Sooner or later, you'll come across an inappropriate posting that you must address. Avoid being defensive or heavy handed when you do. Simply post a message reminding forum users about your company's policy. Then e-mail the offending party and ask him or her to tone it down. Ban users only as a last resort.
Of course, you may be tempted to ban everyone who gripes about your product. That would be a mistake. Allowing customers to air their grievances on your site is likely to make them more loyal, not less--provided, of course, that you make an effort to address their complaints in a timely manner.