Back in 2004, Texas Instruments (TI) noticed a problem in its customer service department, one that's typical in companies serving technical customer bases. Some of TI's main customers (engineers) buy and use some of the company's most technical products, such as digital signal processors. TI needed a better way to quickly provide answers to customer questions, without the customer sitting on hold with a call center, waiting for a representative who might not even have the technical expertise to answer the inquiry.
Around the same time, tech industry observers were noting that Web 2.0 technologies could be utilized to build customer communities to transparently document common problems. As community-based applications emerged, TI decided to build "E2E," which stands for engineers to engineers. Launched in 2008, E2E is an externally-facing community where TI's staff interacts with engineering customers (and where the engineers could interact with each other).
As a result, TI has reworked a major part of its customer service arm into a transparent portal where customers and TI employees can share best practices that help solve common technical challenges. "It allows us to have a place to publicly share knowledge," says Devashish Saxena, Texas Instruments' (TI) director of global Internet marketing.
The engineers can trade messages with TI's staff for many technical issues. Once a TI staffer answers the question, the thread of comments appear publicly on the E2E site. Moreover, the results come up on Google. So if engineers type the name of a product into Google (and many such searches use specific model numbers), E2E forums will return in the search results page.
"If you think about engineers, when they ask a question in a forum setting, they use the same keywords," Saxena says. "Lots of the site traffic comes from organic search."
According to Saxena, in a short time, E2E has changed the nature of requests the customer support department receives, since engineers were able to access help for deeply technical issues from the community. Now, if they have to call customer service, it's for a more specific question (to their case) that isn't as broadly applicable to the whole community.
TI built the platform on technology from Telligent, a company that makes Web 2.0 technologies for the enterprise (often called Enterprise 2.0 apps). The Telligent platform allows customers to interact with the company hosting the forum, and each other, to solve problems.
According to Oliver Young, a senior Forrester analyst, apps like Telligent's have become popular for the type of externally-facing forum TI has built. SharePoint, Microsoft's mammoth set of collaboration applications, can be used for external communities, but the licensing is more complex, so companies have more often relied on it for internal purposes.
"Companies buying social software have often been focusing on this marketing side of the house, and tying internal communities with the external," Young says. "Having the seamless ability to surface information from the external communities and take it inside can be very hopeful."
C.G. Lynch writes about consumer and social technologies, and tracks their migration into the workplace. You can follow him on Twitter: @cglynch.
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