How to move clients from email to a forum

Last week I asked a question on LinkedIn:

A client started a community so that she could help her customers get advice from each other rather than having one-on-one conversations with her. She’s been very disciplined about posting useful tips and so there’s always something new to see when people visit. So far, so good.

The problem is her clients continue to email her individually. People liked the personalized service she used to provide. Unfortunately her business has grown, but the number of hours in a week hasn’t. Individual consultation just isn’t possible to the degree it was in the past.

Given she has a community forum just waiting for her customers, what’s a good way for her to shepard clients to the forum?

Here are a few of the answers I got:

Monica Cellio:

Assuming there’s a helping community there, she might consider sending an automatic message when people email her for support, along the lines of “I want you to get the help you need and I’m overloaded; I’ll get to your message as soon as I can, but you’ll probably get a faster answer from our community. Would you like to post your question there? (link)”

And when she does get to the question, she should check to see if it’s already in the forum, so she doesn’t spend time writing a redundant answer and can instead say “glad our community was able to help!” and whatever CTA she wants to plug in there.

Brad Noble:

Can she build a chatbot on top of a corpus of previous answers and posts, so that people have a resource to try before she engages personally?

Baily Hancock

Maybe she could do a weekly Q&A session (live or prerecorded) where she redirects people who email her to ask their questions in advance so she can respond in bulk and the responses could be public to help other members. A redirect is better than a “sorry I don’t do this anymore” or her just answering them and becoming bitter about it.

Aarthi Devanathan:

She probably has a lot of her old email from providing 1:1 consultation. If she can identify some common themes in those, she ought to seed the Q&A forum with those as well. A knowledge base that’s blank is not helpful to anyone, least of all her customers. Her blog and YouTube content aren’t answers in situ, if she wants people to use the forum she has to show there’s already valuable info there.

Tim Post:

Some kind of automation to move an email to a question on the community site and provide a link to the sender to go claim it, or ask a different version of it themselves. I’d put a tremendous amount of effort into an automated response explaining what was going on and why, and start weaning soon.

There could be gentler versions of it, too, but it sounds like she’d quickly run out of air explaining this so many times over and over in 1:1 settings.

Before I give my answer, I just want to point out how varied the answers were that I got from asking my network. Having people with a range of experiences respond to a prompt brings out a diversity of replies that open doors to new solutions. Some of these answers won’t work with the client I have in mind, but all of them are useful in some cases. If this were Community Building Stack Exchange, I’d probably upvote them all.

In theory I’m the expert here. I’m getting paid to know the answers and give the advice. So there’s a temptation to power through with what I know and not open myself up to the criticism[1] that I’m a fraud because I’m asking other people. And yet, the way I became an expert was listening and asking questions until I had a mental model of how communities function. What I’m selling clients is the output of that model as it applies to their situation.

In this case, Baily’s suggestion opened up an idea that I hadn’t considered. She suggested a regular Q&A session so that my client could collect questions and answer them in bulk. It reminded me of another client who does just that for investment advice. Instead of a dozen one-off answers, the Q&A event creates an opportunity for people to learn from other people’s questions. It’s a regular heartbeat that brings people back to the site and reminds them of the value they are getting from it.

Ok here’s my answer:

Post the questions on behalf of the askers and answer the questions on the forum. Then email a link to the forum post in answer to the email.

To pick up on Tim’s suggestion, Discourse has features for customer support that might help automate the process. Even manually posting the question for someone is a step in the right direction since it make the point that answers are in the forum and not in a private email.[2]

This represents a change in the business model. Under the old model, my client was. metaphorically, a personal chef. Under the new model, she’s running a restaurant. The change comes with some limitations on what can be served and how, but in exchange her customers can mingle with other customers. The more people she can serve, the better her service will be for everyone.

To stretch the analogy, it’s not uncommon for people in a restaurant to see a dish served to someone else and say “I’ll have what she’s having”. In extreme cases, it can even prompt a restaurant to expand into secret menu territory. Customers can introduce each other into a rite of initiation that strengthens the entire enterprise. While there is something lost by shifting away from private consulting, the potential benefit, for the business and for customers, can be significant.

And if you didn’t catch it, I just modeled the idea by posting my client’s question to LinkedIn and now to my own platform. :wink:

  1. Mostly from myself! ↩︎

  2. Obviously there are exceptions to this. If the question is private or extremely specific. ↩︎