Managing a community: a new kind of customer service

We’ve heard it six thousand times: The workplace is changing. We know that members of today’s workforce want to be successful, but they also want to be happy. We understand that they want to scale their businesses, but they want to help others do the same. And we’re certain that their ideas are creative, innovative, and savvy, but that they would rather build upon these ideas with their peers than flesh them out on their own. What we don’t know is how this professional shift will impact companies’ hiring needs, as it seems that roles and responsibilities that didn’t exist a few years ago (or even a few months ago) are emerging daily.

One such position is a Community Manager, a unique role that I’m almost certain my parents will never fully understand. Coming into this job fresh out of college, my experience in customer service was limited entirely to the summers I spent hosting at a local Italian restaurant. Very clearly, I had much to learn. This is not to say that working in the restaurant business isn’t a tough gig, but managing a diverse community of entrepreneurs is another thing entirely. After all, this is a business of teamwork and our members’ many successes (and even their failures) are also our own.

So while I am hardly a seasoned vet in this arena, the past seven months have given me just enough time to recognize some truths about good management and what is required to shape a group of individuals into a community:

“No” can be a dirty word

Situations in which you tell your customers “no” should be few and far between. This is not to say that your dedication to good service should ever allow others to take advantage, but it does mean that if one of my members needs assistance booking a conference room, it really doesn’t matter that I was just about to step out for lunch or that they caught me in the middle of handling something for my supervisor. The answer should (almost) always be “yes”…and an emphatic one at that.

If they have to ask, you’re already too late

The area of customer service requires great skill in the art of “troubleshooting.” One should solve problems before they arise and anticipate trouble where others expect none. And while only months ago, I never dreamed the word “troubleshoot” would become an integral part of my daily vernacular; it has nonetheless proven to be one of the most important aspects of my job. Members, clients, customers, et al. don’t have time to ask for things to be fixed, which means it is essential that things are fixed before they are even close to being broken.

Know your customers

Like duh, right?

However I’m talking about more than just understanding consumer behavior. It’s about getting to know them as people with families, hobbies, goals, and favorite 90s sitcoms. Let’s not forget these too: the names of their spouses, mothers, kids, dogs and all of their birthdays to boot! Know how they take their coffee and why they do what they do everyday. As a customer service provider, you have to do a little digging into your customers’ lives (in the least invasive manner, of course) and your efforts to do so should always be sincere.

Rules were made to be broken (or at least bent)

We’re all human, so we should behave accordingly. Yes, policies and regulations have their place in all business models, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a little interpretation. It’s okay to make exceptions, particularly if this will diffuse an undesirable situation. So go ahead – accept a forbidden product return and maybe even dole out a few discounts. Doing so will have a huge impact on your customers’ experiences.

Communities aren’t made from behind a computer screen

Nope, Rome wasn’t built in a day, but maybe no one told the Romans to lay off the GChat. There’s no doubt that e-mails, instant messages, and tweets have revolutionized the way we communicate (In fact, they make it seemingly possible to go days at a time without actually uttering a word).

But at the risk of sounding like my grandmother, labeling these methods as forms of “communication” can be problematic. After all, fostering collaboration, relationships, and trust can be tricky under the best of circumstances, but it’ll be even harder unless we move away from our monitors. So consider knocking on someone’s door, picking up the phone, and giving him or her a call. Or better yet, send a quick handwritten note. With little touches like these, you’ll notice a positive difference in your community.

-Your Community Manager

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