Interview with Mike Hardy, Community Manager - Pitney Bowes
Bio: Mike Hardy manages eCommerce development at Pitney Bowes and is the creator and community manager of their user forum, which launched in May 2008. Prior to joining Pitney Bowes, Mike created and produced large media and software projects for major educational publishers.
Tom: Your background focuses primarily in the education space. Was creating the user community at Pitney Bowes your first foray into social media?
Mike: I've actually been involved with forums since the early ‘80s. By 1988, I was the host of a conference on "The Well." My first forum experiences (then called a BBS), were by way of a 300-baud modem in an Osborne Portable Computer. It was the world's first portable computer, though it looked more like a portable sewing machine with a 5-inch screen!
Note from Tom: (The Well describes itself as "the primordial ooze where the online community movement was born - where Howard Rheingold first coined the term ‘virtual community.''")
Mike: Well, my role here is bigger than the forums. I also manage part of the Web development team. But in terms of the forums, I'd say that my experience managing a myriad of creative projects with virtual or remote groups over the years made me feel immediately comfortable interacting with customers on the forums.
Tom: Did you join Pitney Bowes specifically to build an online community? Or was this something you identified the need for once you got there?
Mike: I joined the company in 2007 as a Web development manager. At that time an online community wasn't on anyone's radar. However, management mandated that we do a better job of engaging with customers and at the same time make the Web a more central part of the entire customer experience. So it wasn't long before I realized that community and forums should play an important part in meeting these objectives.
Tom: What was the process like from going to identifying the need for a community, to actually launching it? What sort of timeline was involved?
Mike: We moved fast - a little more than two months. We started looking for a community platform vendor in January with the goal of having another support channel well before the big postal rate change happened on May 12, 2008. When the USPS changes rates, everyone with a Pitney Bowes meter has to contact us one way or another to get the new rates into their machine.
To give you some idea, in 2007 we had 417,000 support phone calls about the rate change. So our initial charter was to get some forums up there where we could do what we had to in order to answer those questions fast - and at the same time deflect calls because others with the same questions would find the answers there.
Tom: So call deflections played into your ROI model?
Mike: Absolutely. Call deflections were our ROI model at that early stage. It took under two weeks to pay for the entire year of maintaining the forums. That's the sort of savings we saw in call deflections alone.
Tom: What about the other 50 weeks of the year? How do you maintain momentum within the community after the rate change period?
Mike: That was something we encountered -- and learned from - that first year. The onslaught of questions related to "How do I get these rates into my meter?" are like the snake swallowing the pig: Once they got the answers, they didn't come back. Our task at that time was to figure out how to maintain discussions on other topics and encourage customers to start engaging with one another on various mailstream topics.
Tom: How did you do that?
Mike: We experimented. For a B2B company, we focused on the bread-and-butter issues: Postal regulations and costs associated with doing business. We are positioned as the foremost experts on postal information. So we parleyed that into features and discussions people needed to do business. This also helped build Pitney Bowes as the go-to brand for postal info and related expertise and best practices.
One area we identified was the need for "Ask the Expert" special forums - forum events where a Pitney Bowes expert hosts a weeklong discussion on a specific topic of interest. These events generate enormous buzz within the community, as customers discover new solutions, perspectives, and other community members with similar interests.
The experts are on for about a week, and prior to the event we push out e-mail promotions to portions of our mailing list. They are enormously successful. We see between 10 to 20 times our usual traffic for these events
Another beneficiary of "Ask the Expert" events is our knowledge base. We get a treasure trove of information from the discussions.
Tom: On a related note to your KB story, a big missed opportunity in many online communities is customer-driven innovation - identifying new products and services, or making existing products and services even better. What are you doing on this front?
Mike: We launched a "Think Tank" forum where customers can post and vote for ideas about our products and services. Management reviews these ideas, plus other customer insights gained from the community, during a monthly executive steering committee meeting.
We also learn a lot of subtle things from the customers on the forums that actually get put into practice but are transparent. For example, we learned how to improve customer support. In one instance, this involved learning that we'd apparently been talking about our equipment and processes in "code language" that customers just didn't understand.
One topic was: "How to change your presets." To us this obviously answered the common question: "How do I update the rates on my meter?" But customers didn't make the connection. The term "presets" meant nothing to them. So from that we learned how to better communicate with our customers - we were now speaking their language.
Tom: You mentioned call deflection ... what other benefits have you identified from your peer-to-peer support community?
Mike: SEO. The forum is a fantastic generator of organic search back to your domains. During last year's rate change, for instance, a Google search of USPS rates listed our forum second only to the postal service itself. This benefited the forum and also helped generate traffic to our entire site... that is something I hadn't seen coming.
Tom: What advice do you have for companies looking to launch an online community?
Mike: Start at the top - get management buyoff early. I'd also recommend a community manager and, since ours is a B2B community, a customer service rep who is assigned to make sure the answers provided by others are accurate and then get those solutions into the KB.
Tom: We learn from our mistakes. What are the top three mistakes you made in launching your community that others could learn from?
Mike: We started with too many topics and categories. As a result, even though there were conversations going -- since things were spread so thin not enough people joined in. It was the empty restaurant syndrome. If no one is in there, who wants to go in?
We also had a rocky road at first in dealing
with negativity. I had two conflicting impulses: keep my hands off and let the
community handle it and get the negative comments out of sight as fast as
possible. Going too far in either direction can be a problem. Learning to find
the balance was a challenge. It took about six weeks for me to start feeling
comfortable ... lots of help from Joe and our
helped. We were talking every day at that point.
Tom: Thanks very much, Mike! It was a pleasure speaking with you today. To hear more from Mike, check out the recent webcast held on 4/9/2009 on lowering support costs while improving the customer experience with online communities.
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