Interview with Mike Hardy, Community Manager - Pitney Bowes
Bio: Mike Hardy manages eCommerce development at Pitney Bowes and is the
creator and community manager of their user
forum, which launched in May 2008. Prior to joining Pitney Bowes, Mike
created and produced large media and software projects for major educational
Tom: Your background
focuses primarily in the education space. Was creating the user community at
Pitney Bowes your first foray into social media?
Mike: I've actually been
involved with forums since the early ‘80s. By 1988, I was the host of a
conference on "The Well." My first forum experiences (then called a
BBS), were by way of a 300-baud modem in an Osborne Portable Computer.
It was the world's first portable computer, though it looked more like a portable
sewing machine with a 5-inch screen!
Note from Tom: (The Well describes itself as "the
primordial ooze where the online community movement was born - where Howard
Rheingold first coined the term ‘virtual community.''")
Tom: What did you
learn from your previous life that is helping you now?
Mike: Well, my role here is bigger
than the forums. I also manage part of the Web development team. But in terms
of the forums, I'd say that my experience managing a myriad of creative
projects with virtual or remote groups over the years made me feel immediately
comfortable interacting with customers on the forums.
Tom: Did you join
Pitney Bowes specifically to build an online community? Or was this something
you identified the need for once you got there?
Mike: I joined the
company in 2007 as a Web development manager. At that time an online community
wasn't on anyone's radar. However, management mandated that we do a better job
of engaging with customers and at the same time make the Web a more central
part of the entire customer experience. So it wasn't long before I realized
that community and forums should play an important part in meeting these
Tom: What was the
process like from going to identifying the need for a community, to actually
launching it? What sort of timeline was involved?
Mike: We moved fast - a little more
than two months. We started looking for a community platform vendor in January
with the goal of having another support channel well before the big postal rate
change happened on May 12, 2008. When the USPS changes rates, everyone with a
Pitney Bowes meter has to contact us one way or another to get the new rates
into their machine.
To give you some idea, in 2007 we had
417,000 support phone calls about the rate change. So our initial charter was
to get some forums up there where we could do what we had to in order to answer
those questions fast - and at the same time deflect calls because others with
the same questions would find the answers there.
Tom: So call
deflections played into your ROI model?
Mike: Absolutely. Call
deflections were our ROI model at
that early stage. It took under two weeks to pay for the entire year of maintaining
the forums. That's the sort of savings we saw in call deflections alone.
Tom: What about the
other 50 weeks of the year? How do you maintain momentum within the community
after the rate change period?
Mike: That was something
we encountered -- and learned from - that first year. The onslaught of
questions related to "How do I get these rates into my meter?" are like the
snake swallowing the pig: Once they got the answers, they didn't come back. Our
task at that time was to figure out how to maintain discussions on other topics
and encourage customers to start engaging with one another on various mailstream topics.
Tom: How did you do
Mike: We experimented.
For a B2B company, we focused on the bread-and-butter issues: Postal regulations
and costs associated with doing business. We are positioned as the foremost
experts on postal information. So we parleyed that into features and
discussions people needed to do business. This also helped build Pitney Bowes as
the go-to brand for postal info and related expertise and best practices.
One area we identified was the need for
"Ask the Expert" special forums - forum events where a Pitney Bowes expert hosts a
weeklong discussion on a specific topic of interest. These events generate
enormous buzz within the community, as customers discover new solutions,
perspectives, and other community members with similar interests.
The experts are on for about a week,
and prior to the event we push out e-mail promotions to portions of our mailing
list. They are enormously successful. We see between 10 to 20 times our usual
traffic for these events
Another beneficiary of "Ask the Expert"
events is our knowledge base. We get a treasure trove of information from the
Tom: On a related note
to your KB story, a big missed opportunity in many online communities is
customer-driven innovation - identifying new products and services, or making
existing products and services even better. What are you doing on this front?
Mike: We launched a "Think Tank" forum where customers
can post and vote for ideas about our products and services. Management reviews
these ideas, plus other customer insights gained from the community, during a
monthly executive steering committee meeting.
We also learn a lot of subtle things
from the customers on the forums that actually get put into practice but are
transparent. For example, we learned how to improve customer support. In one
instance, this involved learning that we'd apparently been talking about our
equipment and processes in "code language" that customers just didn't
One topic was: "How to change your
presets." To us this obviously answered
the common question: "How do I update
the rates on my meter?" But customers didn't make the connection. The term
"presets" meant nothing to them. So from that we learned how to better
communicate with our customers - we were now speaking their language.
Tom: You mentioned call deflection ...
what other benefits have you identified from your peer-to-peer support
Mike: SEO. The
forum is a fantastic generator of organic search back to your domains. During
last year's rate change, for instance, a Google search of USPS rates listed our
forum second only to the postal service itself. This benefited the forum and also
helped generate traffic to our entire site... that is something I hadn't seen
Tom: What advice do you
have for companies looking to launch an online community?
Mike: Start at the top - get
management buyoff early. I'd also recommend a community manager and, since ours
is a B2B community, a customer service rep who is assigned to make sure the
answers provided by others are accurate and then get those solutions into the
Tom: We learn from our
mistakes. What are the top three mistakes you made in launching your community
that others could learn from?
Mike: We started with too many topics and categories.
As a result, even though there were conversations going -- since things were
spread so thin not enough people joined in. It was the empty restaurant
syndrome. If no one is in there, who wants to go in?
We also had a rocky road at first in dealing
with negativity. I had two conflicting impulses: keep my hands off and let the
community handle it and get the negative comments out of sight as fast as
possible. Going too far in either direction can be a problem. Learning to find
the balance was a challenge. It took about six weeks for me to start feeling
comfortable ... lots of help from Joe and our
helped. We were talking every day at that point.
Tom: Thanks very much, Mike! It was a pleasure speaking with you today. To hear more from Mike, check out the recent webcast
held on 4/9/2009 on lowering support costs while improving the customer
experience with online communities.