Creative Commons License photo credit: @boetter

Support forums exist for seemingly every form of popular technology and even for most forms of less popular and mainstream technology. They can be dedicated to specific trades or areas of knowledge, to specific brands and products and more.

From web hosting to consumer electronics, from official communities to unofficial ones, support forums often represent the greatest collection of concentrated knowledge aimed at whatever it is that they cover.

I’ve participated, at various levels, in a number of them over the years and have run for 10 and a half years and for 8 and a half. My experience has led me to believe that truly great support forums often share 3 specific principles.

#1: What You Say is as Important as How You Say It

Most people who participate in support forums do so for free and, especially because of this, some people feel like, as long as they provide the information that the person needs, they can have an attitude when they do it.

That may work for some, but that’s not greatness. I’ve always said, when it comes to my forums, that I don’t care how much somebody knows – I only care about how much knowledge someone can kindly and respectfully communicate.

I don’t care who you are, I don’t how much you know. If you come into my community and start belittling other people with your “knowledge,” we will show you the door. This is a conscious decision, written into our user guidelines and fairly and evenly applied to all. It is who we are.

The ability to provide support in a kind and respectful way is very important. When you are kind, that is an advantage, both personally and professionally.

#2: RTFM Doesn’t Exist and People Don’t Have to Search

If RTFM is a common and accepted phrase on a support forum, that support forum is not great. “Read the documentation” is an exceptionally unhelpful response. Why even have a support forum? Why exist? Close the doors.

Cite the documentation, link them to a specific part or share a specific page number with them. Tell them why the manual is the best source and what they will find and where they will find it.

The same thing applies to telling people to search. If your support forum responds to a new member’s question by telling them they should have searched first, why do you exist? Just redirect your website to Google and call it a day.

Instead of telling people to search or read the FAQ, point them to a particular post that precisely answers their question or to a particular answer in the FAQ that does the same thing. Or, if it’s short enough, just answer it in the actual thread.

People join support forums for curated behavior. They don’t want to search through hundreds of threads. They want to ask a question and get an answer. That is the value of the human interaction of a forum. If they wanted a machine to help them, they would not be posting a question at your site in the first place.

#3: Don’t Just Answer the Question, Offer an Alternative

This one was actually the initial inspiration for this post. I am a Liquid Web customer and I sent in a support question yesterday. It’s not a support forum, it’s a help desk, but for our intents and purposes, it applies just as well.

The question was about memory usage on my server and whether my current level of usage was cause for concern. This is a question that could be answered with a simple yes or a no. Yes, it is a cause for concern and you should give us more money and get a bigger server. No, this is normal and you should be fine. Either answer would have been OK, though I would have been disappointed if I had to spend more money because I just can’t afford it right now.

What the support representative did was different than that. I did receive an answer to my question. No, it was nothing to be exceptionally concerned about. It was normal with this amount of memory. That could have been the end of the message. But, it wasn’t. The rep made a simple suggestion: if a certain service is disabled, memory usage could drop by 10% or more. Would I like them to go ahead and disable it for me?

It was a small thing. It probably didn’t take that long to think of it. But, I appreciated the action of going beyond my question and being proactive. Here’s the answer and, also, by the way, here is an idea for how we can lower that memory usage. Small details can have big impact.

For company staffed forums aimed at supporting a product or service, I really believe in this one. For other forums, where people are participating freely, it comes down to what individual people want to do, but it should be encouraged wherever possible.

Combine these three principles and you just might have something great.