Like many brands, SAS started its online community 10 years ago to reduce the need for telephone support. Two SAS employees, Chris Hemedinger and Shelley Sessoms, explained in a podcast recording how the SAS online communities now provide (much) more than customer support. Chris is the Senior Manager of Online Communities, and Shelley is one of three Community Managers on his team.
The Back Story
For those of you unfamiliar with SAS, it is the largest independent company in the business intelligence market. Since its establishment in 1976, SAS has been recognized as a leader in business analytics software.
What has become a group of 20 online communities was started 10 years ago as a set of discussion forums. Rather than being born from a strategic directive, these forums evolved organically from an idea that SAS users could help each other use the software, and that they would want to do that. As the forums attracted more SAS users, it became clear that there was an opportunity to shift the community into a higher gear that could provide more benefits than simply reducing customer service costs.
Hub and Spoke Model
Three SAS community managers are responsible for the 20 online communities operating today (with more on the way). Each manager serves as the hub for several communities for which they:
- Curate relevant content
- Solicit original content from SAS employees and users
- Ensure that good technical content is readily available in the community
- Monitor activity to make sure all questions are answered
- When the same question arises routinely, posts content that answers the question in an effort to head off redundant questions
- Pull in non-support employees to answer customer questions directly
As you can see from this list, the SAS online communities have evolved beyond peer-to-peer forums to become publishing platforms for essential content. To make sure content will be consumed by its intended audience, community managers conduct customer polls to help determine which content formats will be best received.
There are several ways for customers and employees to interact, including blogs, user groups, and questions submitted to forums.
Encouraging Employee Involvement
For customers, a response to a question from a technical expert who has worked on a product can be a WOW moment. It also gives that technical expert a real world view of the problems customers face. This is a win for the customer, the employee, and for SAS, so community managers are always working at getting employees involved.
While some employees are drawn to the opportunity to communicate with customers, others need a bit of encouragement. That's why a "gamification" strategy of recognizing employees who participate in the communities has been implemented. Badges are awarded to employees for the first time they post a question, post and answer, have an answer they posted accepted as a solution, have an answer 'liked' by five people, and more. There are currently dozens of badges, and more are being added.
In addition to rewarding employees, the community recognizes customers who do an exceptional job of using SAS products. Community managers are creating new ways to recognize and reward customer involvement.
Keeping Negative Comments within the Community
By attracting customers who are having problems into the online communities, SAS is able to respond to negative comments directly. While the first mission is to fix the problem, keeping those comments off of social media is often a welcome byproduct. In this way, the community assists SAS in managing its reputation.
In the podcast, Shelley Sessoms describes her work as "herding cats," but in a playful way. To all who are paying attention, it is clear that online communities provide tremendous value for the SAS brand that goes way beyond customer support.
On This Social Business Engine Podcast Episode You'll Discover
- How the online community is optimized for mobile users with a lighter version.
- What is involved in the role of a community manager and why Shelley (affectionately) says it's like herding cats.
- Why Chris says the biggest challenge of getting non-support employees involved is letting them know they have permission to communicate with customers.
- How the online community at SAS works with the marketing department and social media program.
Featured On This Episode of the Social Business Engine Podcast:
- SAS' community website
- Shelley Sessoms on LinkedIn
- Chris Hemedinger on LinkedIn
- Download Social Business Journal Vol. 5: The Community Playbook
- Subscribe to the Social Business Engine show
- Write a review of this podcast in iTunes
- Bernie Borges on Twitter: @bernieborges
- Social Business Engine on Twitter: @sbengine