Build Community Around "My Stuff"

How Will Online Communities and Social Networks Evolve?

November 10, 2011

The ability to help customers “manage their stuff” and coordinate their activities are key differentiators in both B2C and B2B worlds. Customers like to use mobile apps and online tools to manage their activities and their projects. But when they need help, they want to reach out to their friends, family, colleagues, and peers. Online customer support communities and social networks need to be integrated into the tools that customers use to manage their stuff.


There’s a pattern emerging in the customer co-design sessions we run. As customers describe how they’d ideally like to get things done in the perfect world, they now usually assume that they can rely on a community of their peers to help them.

Online communities and self-service support are not new. What is new is the way in which customers now seem to presume that they should be able to access these peer communities and subject matter experts in and around “their stuff.” They don’t want to log on to a separate online community for support. They want that community to be available to them from within the product they are using and/or from the mobile app they are using to track status or from the customer portal they use to manage their assets and their activities.

Social networks are not new. What is new are the ways in which consumers and business users expect to be able to reach out and connect to those networks specific to the tasks at hand.

In just about every phase of consumer and business life, customers want help organizing anWhen we need help, where do we turn?d managing all the things they buy, own, do, and coordinate around. We refer to this as the “manage my stuff” customer scenario pattern 1 . Companies that do a good job of “managing my stuff” are much more likely to win and retain customers’ hearts and minds. Companies that integrate their customer support communities into their “manage my stuff” customer portals and applications will streamline customers’ ability to resolve issues quickly. Companies that enable customers to engage in social networking specific to the disciplines, issues, assets, and causes they are working on, will grow their own network of customer advocates and consultants.

Managing my stuff is a key, but subtle requirement that is at the core of the next generation of win/win business models: customer-centric ecosystems. Integrating online communities and real-time social networking in and around “my stuff” turns a multipartner-supported customer-critical workflow into a truly vibrant and growing customer-centric ecosystem.

The question we hope to answer in this article is: How would customers ideally like to interact with one another in and around their activities and projects?

Patty Seybold’s Home Page and “Locker” on Scitable

Patty Seybold’s Home Page and “Locker” on Scitable
(Click on image to enlarge.)

© 2011 Patricia Seybold Group Inc. and Nature Education

Illustration 3. I was able to create my own Scitable home page from which I can do my research, learning, and networking.


Why Do Customers Need More Than In-Product Help & Basic Customer Support?

Every company that sells a product or service provides basic “help” in the use of their product. For software or intelligent devices, this help is often integrated into the product. You can press a button and get context-sensitive suggestions to help you understand how to do the basic things. If the in-product help doesn’t work, you can go online to the customer support area of the web site associated with the product or service and find more forms of interactive help—tutorials; FAQs; a searchable knowledgebase; and, often, an online discussion forum, where customers ask questions, and company experts (and sometime other customers) answer them. Many companies now also offer interactive chat sessions to answer customers’ questions in real time.

All of these customer self-service capabilities are provided in addition to the more traditional phone support for two reasons:

  1. Many customers prefer to serve themselves, rather than to call phone support. They don’t want to wait in a queue. And they feel that the person with whom they finally get to talk may or may not know the answer to their question (which may be a product-related question, a technical question, or a business or policy question).
  2. It is less expensive to provide the answers online to a million people than it is to try to answer a million phone calls. Even online chat is less expensive because a single agent can be engaged in multiple chats simultaneously. Interactive chatting or SMS messaging can be more immediate and more satisfying for many customers who want real-time answers without having to wait to talk with someone on the phone.

These basic self-service and assisted-service customer support tools are designed to answer questions like: How do I install this product? How do I perform this function? What kind of support are we entitled to? When does my subscription expire? These tools and support capabilities are generally not designed to answer questions like: What’s the best way to perform this activity (using your products and others’ products)? How well are we doing, compared to others who are using your tools and services to accomplish similar things?

Help Doesn’t Address the Question, “How Do I Get My Project Done?” This basic in-product or about-our-product support is a necessary pre-requisite. However, there is an additional kind of support that many customers need and value. It goes beyond the basic “how do I perform this function or task?” to “how do I use these products/services to get something specific done.” A customer may want to plan and manage a multi-person business or family trip, get a car repaired after an accident or manage the maintenance of all of the cars in their family, manage their day-to-day cash flow, invest wisely for their children’s education, design a new product, launch a successful product, plan a business conference or plan a wedding, run a power plant profitably, produce a good harvest and sell their produce at the best possible price. Whatever project or activities a customer wants to manage or to get done, they often need help, advice, relevant resources, and/or tips.

Often customers’ issues aren’t directly product-related. The product or service the customer is using is only part of their context. The activities they’re performing are what matters most to them. Their use of your products and services is ancillary. So, when customers need help in and around your products and services, it’s often in the context of the specific scenarios the customer wants to perform.

Whose Advice Do Customers Trust?

We often run into problems related to activities we’re doing (commuting, managing our money, repairing things, working on a project for work, school, or personal). When we need help, where do we turn?

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1) "Manage My Stuff and Coordinate Around Our Stuff: What Tools and Information Do Customers Need and Value for Personal and Professional Use?" by Patricia B. Seybold, October 20, 2011.

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