I'm tossing around the idea of setting up the typical client-to-client support forum for my co, but I was wondering what people's experiences were with them? Do clients really use them? Do they find them useful when there's an announcement area? Is there anything to avoid in a support forum?
It is hit or miss really. As with this forum, often people post to get attention, or bring an issue public, which might not be what you want. As long as you realize that people are going to post problems they have (99.9% of the time) then go for it. If you'd rather these be addressed in a non-public fashion, then a forum might not be the best. Of course having a forum for other topics (web design for example) might be more of what you are thinking.
I've seen host forums that are alive and jumping and others which are dead. A current project that I'm involved with is 'sputtering' at the moment. Too early to tell...
well when we had a customer forum no-one used it and we got comments from prospective clients about how empty it was ......they all seem to prefer emailing us.
However with our new design we will be re-launching the forum to see if it takes off this time.
It can be hard on your ego if you are not prepared to have every tiniest fault posted to the public (assuming you would have public forums) and at the same time extremely rewarding for both you and your clients to have a central location to support each other.
A low overall percentage of our clients actually post to the forums, but of those that do, I think it has enhanced the value of the hosting they have received in many ways. The most noticeable is how they learn about different things they can accomplish within the server from other site owners. I have also noticed that they have a deeper understanding of what is going on during maintenance windows or with new announcements since they have a generally relaxed environment to be in contact with us in.
The ability to communicate with your clients in a relaxed environment (open threads vs one2one Q&A email) enhances the relationship a great deal. They have a stronger ability to view you as human, better opportunity to ask questions and gain a better understanding of the services, greater chance of meeting others that use the same server environment as them....the list goes on and on.
We have had an awesome time with our own forums but it is a risk none the less. There is a reason so many hosts make their forums private and/or close them down. There is also a reason why forums may be slow or non-existent. They take a lot of TLC. I've seen quite a few note in the past that forums can lesson the amount of support you need to offer since site owners are able to help each other. This is true to a certain extent however, forums generate quite a bit of work in other areas and require a certain level of "Online Community Skills" to succeed. Additionally, they tend to require 'double the support time' when they first open as you are the one 'teaching the others' what they are for and how to use them.
As long as you are willing to commit yourself to participating within the forums and growing them into a positive resource they should be an excellent action for you to take. If on the other hand you have little time for them or 'hope they'll grow on their own', you are better off skipping the project until you have more time to dedicate to them.
I run a free tech support message forum (non-profit) and use a portion of it to host the support forum for our hosting customers in order to "pay" for the hosting. This particular way works out well, because the board is not focused on hosting issues, but rather on support in general, and our company section, though rarely used, is never said to be empty because the board as a whole is (somewhat) active.
All good points. The support ticket system I'm using has an area for announcements to be placed when a user logs in...so I guess I won't have any immediate need for forums. Atleast until there is some sort of demand for it. Thanks for all the input.