Ever heard of triage? If you're not a Grey's Anatomy die-hard, here's the gist: when you head into the emergency room, and a doctor or nurse will assess your situation to decide on the severity of your ailment, and the best course of action to treat it.
Adrian Speyer, Head of Community & Lead Evangelist at Higher Logic's Vanilla Forums (and husband to a nurse) has applied this to his own work in community, creating a useful model to show how community can be the first port-of-call for customers across all business departments.
— Adrian Speyer
When explaining how community can — and should — fit into the various departments of a business, I like to illustrate it with my Community Triage model. I have my wife, who works tirelessly as a nurse, to thank for introducing me to this concept. I can also trace it back to research we did in 2020, which underscored just how much people prefer to self-support — that is, when it's done well. There's a lot to unpack in the research (you can see it all here) but here's what we uncovered in a nutshell:
84% of people will try to solve their own issues
79% of people expect self-support tools without contacting other support channels
77% of people viewed organizations more positively if they offered self-service support
It was this that formed the basis of my triage philosophy. As I read the research, I sketched a funnel of interaction, with community at the forefront:
In other words, a customer's initial reaction is not to call or create a ticket, but to engage in the community first, and then move on to the other interactions as necessary. I really see this model as the future – becoming the primary lead layer of customer experience and really streamlining customer interactions for maximum efficiency.
Most importantly, as our research shows: it's what people want.
Community Triage is really the idea that the community is at the absolute heart of any customer journey. Here's what that might mean for various departments:
This is perhaps the most obvious example within this model (but certainly not the only one). Placing community upfront for support makes it the first place people will go to ask questions, perhaps in an area for public discussion, where they can get help from their peers. It's also where they'll find a searchable knowledge base, which the members themselves might be able to add to. If a customer's question is too niche or detailed to be answered in these spaces, their query should then be moved into a private ticket or onto support agents.
It feels like everyone's talking about customer success nowadays, and with good reason. In my mind, there are three things that that success requires — or rather, what people require in order to be successful.
Inspiration: What have your customers already doing? What can I copy?
Best practices: What are the best-in-class companies doing? And how can I do it?
Networking: How can I connect with others in the same space? What can I learn from them?
All three lend themselves to community. This is how we run ours at Vanilla Forums — it's not a support community, but a success community. We want people to be inspired: to be able to see best practices, share with each other, and to connect with other Vanilla customers.
This is always an interesting one — how can something like community fit into sales? But if you're putting community out front, it could be the first place a customer will encounter your brand. This makes it the perfect space for them to find their own answers to some pre-sales questions. What's included in my plan? What kind of plan do I need? It's a place for self-research — for kicking the tires, understanding how other customers feel about you, and how you interact with them.
There's also an opportunity for sales promotion. Now, I don't mean beating people over the head with advertising. But the nature of community means you'll have a bit more info about customers at your disposal. That might mean you're able to tailor some offers based on the content that they are consuming, or showcase certain aspects of the product they may not be aware of, and so on. Of course, this is also where you might offer up a sales form, if people want to skip right to a demo or get more information.
This is another way we use our community internally at Vanilla, with great success. There are some things that can be done really well in a community: for example, gathering feedback, when users report bugs and get help resolving them. Your community platform then becomes a product repository of sorts — if something is not working the way it should, the community is going to uncover it first. It can also be a space for users to vote or submit ideas on new features, and, as touched on previously, learn how to use the product better.
Something important to highlight here: if you're asking people to submit feedback or ideas, you need to have a process to give them feedback. You need to make sure they know you're hearing them. It's about closing that loop.
Like sales, this is another area that community folks tend to be wary of, but to be clear, I'm not talking about spamming your community here. It's about enhancing their experience. For example, a community can be a space for gathering info on the kind of content your customers or users actually want — there are tools like HubSpot, Marketo, and others that can look at what people are consuming, and then show them more content that might be relevant.
There are plenty of other ways community can help drive content: it's also a great place to find case studies for content — we discovered some of our own case studies within the community — as well as advocates and influencers. Lastly, it can be a platform for identifying and handling reviews. This goes for negative ones too. If someone's unhappy, I really would prefer they came to the community so we have a conversation, where things can be more detailed or private.
Your community could be an untapped resource of great future team members. The fact that they're in your community is a great start — you know they're invested. But do they have the industry knowledge? Are they a good culture fit? Are they passionate about what you do? That data is all right there for you.
To summarize, I think community upfront is the future. I think it's a more efficient use of your staff. It increases your organizational knowledge, because it means everything we talked about above — knowledge bases, questions, product feedback — is all in one space. It can help identify sales opportunities and can drive lead capture rates. And then finally, it can help you hire better to identify people who might be the best possible fit for your organisation.
Placing community at the beginning of any customer journey is so beneficial across departments. It offers them the self-service options they want, and will help channel customers to the best 'treatment' for their needs.
This article is an adapted version of Adrian's session at our Community-Led Summit — head over to our YouTube channel to watch a recording.