At a General Assembly panel last week, community leaders from Pinterest, Republic Wireless and Solavei shared learnings from their trend-setting paid community programs, where select members are invited to become “experts” who resolve customer questions and earn rewards.*
Panelists Kim Ashley from Republic Wireless, Kris Lentz from Solavei and Maggie Armato from Pinterest, moderated by Samantha Stein from Vint and Daphne Crane from Intercom, used their unique perspective to debate important questions about introducing payments to community.
Here’s a summary of the 5 most debated questions from the panel:
1. Is introducing payments to community good or bad?
Before launching their paid programs, Kris at Solavei and Maggie at Pinterest had no qualms. They agreed that it made sense to reward customers who make a special effort to help others. Solavei already has a social commerce platform that pays customers for referrals -- paying for customer service help is a natural extension.
Kim at Republic Wireless felt differently.
“I was pretty reluctant about the change. I thought ‘oh, we have all these magic people, it’s our secret sauce. They do these things because they intrinsically like each other’ and so I resisted at first,” she said.
Republic Wireless has strategically cultivated its community and considers it one of its most valuable assets. The company invited some of its most active evangelists, or “ambassadors”, along with other helpful online forum members into a Directly-powered expert program to answer helpdesk tickets for rewards. Kim said she was shocked when, after rolling out the program, even community members who weren’t invited were fine with it.
“They said ‘that’s really cool that some people are taking this to a different level’.”
Kris noted that some members of the Solavei community who complained when they weren’t getting paid also complained about getting paid.
“I found that, in general, some people just want to complain…. but sticking with it paid off,” he said.
2. What motivates the experts more, love or money?
The panelists agreed that passion always is important. “We’re very lucky that users love our product so much, so it wasn’t hard to find engaged users that want to help other Pinners,” Maggie said.
But they landed in different places on their approach to rewards. At Pinterest and Solavei, the paid expert program is the only way community members can help customers. Kris noted, “everyday people take pride in helping others answering questions and earning cash.”
Republic Wireless keeps both free and paid programs for community-based help. Members self select; some decide to only answer questions in the free forum because it aligns with their motivations better, others stay in the paid expert program because the reward money helps out. And all of the paid experts end up becoming more active in the free online community “so everybody wins,” Kim said.
3. Where does the reward money come from (or where else would it go)?
At Solavei, the money to reward online experts would otherwise go to its offshore call center. ‘How-to’ questions about topics like phone settings are great for the paid community experts, who answer these online questions so quickly that call volume to the outsourced phone support center is dropping. “[In the call center] I’m paying 8 bucks for a 15 minute phone call, where I can pay a dollar to someone to answer that question in their spare time on their phone,” Kris noted. “We’re able to take those resources and put it back into the community.”
At Republic Wireless, the reward the money probably would go to an outsourced call center if there wasn’t a paid community program, but that scenario is unlikely to happen. “[Our] whole mission is to put money back in the hands of consumers while making wireless accessible to everybody,” Kim said.
Pinterest would have had to hire more people if it didn’t have the paid community program, and still “we wouldn’t have been able to manage it,” Maggie said.
4. What were your company’s biggest internal concerns before launching?
At Republic Wireless, the biggest internal concerns about the paid expert program were around customer privacy. “We had some battles to get through,” Kim said. The program champions noted that people already were answering questions live in the community, and that the paid program simply adds a structure that lets experts get rewarded for helping others. Ultimately, the champions prevailed, and the company is careful to distinguish between the paid community and internal employees in all its communications, Kim said.
Solavei was concerned that paying people for customer service might conflict with its paid sales referral program. But the company came to look at the expert program as another part of the Solavei opportunity. Months into the paid community program, has resulted in no sales cannibalization, Kris said.
Before rolling out the paid program at Pinterest, the biggest questions were around support quality and whether expert Pinners could answer questions correctly. This concern resonated with many of the audience members during the Q&A session.
Now, not only is the quality high, but “every testimonial says [customers] are really excited to talk to a real person, and they’re really excited to talk to another Pinner. It’s almost like another community within a community,” said Maggie.
5. What was the most surprising part of your Directly deployment?
For Solavei, the biggest surprise was the speed of positive results. The company had a financial goal to increase the percent of support tickets handled online and decrease the percent going to the outsourced call center. The day after launching Directly, online support volume grew from 2 percent to 10 percent within hours of launch.
"It was really insane. There was no bake-in period!” Kris said.
At Republic Wireless, “the turn-around time is the one that has blown us away. People are getting their answers in under 2 minutes. It’s really delighted customers,” Kim said.
For Pinterest, the biggest surprise also was resolution time, followed closely by customer satisfaction. Before, average resolution times ranged from 24 to 48 hours. After launching the paid community program with Directly, it dropped to 7 minutes. Response rate is now under 5 minutes.
“What was really shocking was there was a huge step change when it came to CSAT,” Maggie said, noting that CSAT for the program was triple what it was for an auto-responder and on par with in-house agents.
The most delightful surprise of all, Kim said, were the friendships that evolved between experts and other customers.
“They start out asking questions [using Directly] and they end up having conversations. Then they become friends on our Jive platform. Some even get together for lunch,” she said. “It seems to be making everyone’s sense of community stronger.”
*All three companies use Directly apps to power their on-demand customer service programs.