Jan 28 2010

How Customer Forums Will Make HR’s Job Easier

Published by at 8:31 pm under marketing

After being neglected for years, company-sponsored forums and boards are being resurrected under the auspices of socializing brands.  For many complicated products and services, customers are self-sorting on forums, demonstrating their expertise and ability to solve problems for others.  If managed properly, today’s brightest customers will be tomorrow’s best employees.  Human Resources departments, which struggle to find candidates that are already knowledgeable about the business, will be able to source an active, engaged talent pool directly from their company resources.

Forums and boards were one of the first social concepts on the web.  The concept is very straightforward: members of the board can start discussion threads, and others respond.  One or several moderators enforce the rules and norms of the community.  In comparison to the dynamism of Twitter and Facebook, with their live-updating feeds, forums may seem staid.  But they are still excellent resources for deep expertise, answers, and advice within a niche.

Companies have had a number of different relationships with forums.  Amazon.com has a corporate-sponsored forum for their third-party sellers; TiVo’s most active forum is run by dedicated users, but with some corporate participation. Companies should participate in forums where their products are discussed. But, when forums are formally sponsored by brands, consumers (both current and prospective) have a powerful signal that their voice is important.

That’s why forum management has naturally fallen under the Marketing team’s bailiwick. However, Human Resources offices have just as much to gain in their search for exceptional talent. And, in a time of shrinking budgets for headhunters, and a growing talent gap in key industries (in particular, technology and logistics/transportation), this is a talent pool that should not be ignored.

Customers use forums for a variety of reasons, but the most common is because it’s the path of least resistance to solve a problem for them.  Technical and functional questions can be answered quickly, policy and service issues can be clarified and interpreted, and customer support is easier to find than by contacting the company directly. But, after visiting several times, some users find that the reputation and acknowledgement of expertise that they gain in product forums is valuable and worthwhile.  Companies like Intuit even encourage this with leaderboards showing the most active and helpful community members.

The beauty of this process is that the superstars self-identify for you. In the case of  fundraising software company Blackbaud, I have spoken with several members of their team that review the most active community forum, Blackbus, for potential hires. Having a deep understanding of the customer experience makes these candidates attractive for any external-facing role, especially in such a niche field as fundraising software, where expertise is in demand.

Companies should plan to create and manage forums, and include the HR office in activity reports, so they can be alert for any potential product experts to recruit.

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