Building valuable customer support communities – Interview with Rob Howard of Zimbra

Today’s interview is with Rob Howard who is the Chief Technology Officer of Zimbra, a leader in the unified collaboration software space. Their solutions include email, calendaring, file sharing, activity streams, social communities and more. Rob joins me today to talk about how Texas Instruments leverages Zimbra’s online community software to drive customer feedback and how to build valuable and effective customer support communities.

This interview follows on from my recent interview: Customer experience requires a new type of responsive leader – Interview with Sid Banerjee of Clarabridge – and is number one-hundred and one in the series of interviews with authors and business leaders that are doing great things, helping businesses innovate, become more social and deliver better service.

Note: The interview series has been on hiatus over the last month as I have been busy with a social enterprise project. Now that that is well under way I hope to get back to publishing interviews on a more regular basis.

Here are the highlights of my interview with Rob:

  • Zimbra have been helping Texas Instruments since 2008 create both external customer help communities (Texas Instruments have roughly 90,000 customers from around the globe using their customer community platform) and internal collaboration communities.
  • Zimbra take a very pragmatic approach to helping build communities.
  • Rob’s top tip for making communities work is to create lots of unique content within a community that is going to draw your customer in. However, you also have to allow them to engage with it, comment on it, share it freely and add to it.
  • ‘Technical’ people are often seen as not being great content creators. However, Rob disagrees with this and believes that ‘technical’ people are great content creators and are happy to share their knowledge.
  • In fact, Rob finds that often ‘technical’ people are better at creating content and better at operating in customer facing forums than customer support people. The reason being is that they are more invested in the product, solving the problem and the work that needs to be done.
  • The people that will be most active in your communities will often come from places that you least expect.
  • To make a community work, you first need to define the community’s business objective i.e.. customer support, customer service, internal collaboration etc etc.
  • Secondly, don’t start a whole business initiative. Start with one business line, in one region, experiment there and get it right before rolling it out.
  • Third, empower your community managers and your great customers. Gamification can help with this in terms of recognition. Zimbra have often found that there are a cohort of customers out there that are hungry and ready to help and you just need to enable them and then recognise their participation.
  • Finally, find customers to participate early as well.
  • To get communities started and to kick-start internal participation it can be really helpful to ‘appoint’ people as champions or to publicly recognise them as experts. This adds kudos to the role and promotes participation.
  • Rob provides a few of examples of what business benefits their clients have gained from their customer community efforts. One used their community to reduce call deflection, one hardware manufacturer saw purchase rates by customers using the communities increase by 24% whilst another used the community feedback to change their manufacturing process so as to minimise problems that many of their customers were facing.
  • For customer facing help-based communities, Rob believes that initiatives should always be started and managed by someone in the customer service department. Whereas for sales based communities, they should be managed by marketing.
  • To build a case for investment in a community, you need to calculate the cost to serve per interaction and the cost of acquisition, pick the right tools and then go and find where your customers are currently asking their questions. Once you have found them then participate in the forums that they are in with a view to helping them and then attracting them back to your community on your own domain. Once done, you can then track how often answers and content are used and reused and what impact it has on the cost to serve per interaction and the cost of acquisition.
  • Communities done well can apply to any sort of business. However, in Rob’s experience they work better when the product or service that is on offer has some level of complexity to it.
  • But, if you have a simple product or service then communities work best when they are focused on the use or application of that product and service.
  • The most valuable part of creating a community is the data that it creates and the insight it offers.
  • Check out the world class community whitepaper Rob mentions here.
  • Check out Zimbra’s free version of their softeare if you are thinking about setting up your own community. Here’s the Zimbra Community Free Edition Download page.

About Rob (taken from his Zimbra bio)

Rob Howard is the Chief Technology Officer at Zimbra, Inc. (formerly Telligent). In July 2013, Telligent, the company that Howard founded in 2004, acquired Zimbra from VMware (NYSE: VMW). The two businesses merged to form Zimbra, Inc. Howard oversees the technology roadmap, research & development, and is the visionary behind the company’s product development. Working with global brands including Comcast, Dell, H&R Block, Microsoft, Oxfam, Rackspace and many others, Howard has put his expertise and insight to work for organizations of all sizes wanting to apply the value of collaborative work to their business.

A true pioneer in enterprise social software, Howard is known throughout the industry as an authority in collaboration and community software. With over 15 years of experience in the technology sector, his roots began at the frontiers of social technology with his contribution to the development and adoption of Microsoft’s (NASDAQ: MSFT) Web platform technologies. While at Microsoft, he helped create and nurture the innovative ASP.NET community.

An expert at developing enterprise social software, he has authored several books on the topic of software development and speaks at conferences worldwide on the topics of social computing and software development. Howard is a member of the Lonestar chapter of the Young Presidents’ Organization, and he earned his bachelor’s of business administration from Baylor University.

You can find out more about Zimbra at and connect with Rob on Twitter @robhoward and LinkedIn here.

5 comments On Building valuable customer support communities – Interview with Rob Howard of Zimbra

  • Adrian, I am a customer of GiffGaff the telecom supplier. I am always amazed by the community input from their customers on their “help” web site.

    Not only will the community answer any question you have, the fact that they will do so is an amazing recommendation for the business


    • James,
      GiffGaff is an amazing example of a firm that have gotten it right. Do you know how GiffGaff got it’s community started?

      Was it a case of build it and they will come or is it around the incentives?


  • Hello Adrian,
    I find myself in agreement with James. It is amazing how vibrant the community is at/on giffgaff.

    How did it get started? It was built into the very fabric of the organisation right from the start. The philosophy of giffgaff is based on a communitarian way of life. giffgaff is word the Scots use for ‘mutual giving’.

    Customer give through recruiting new customers, helping out existing customers, providing advice-feedback to giffgaff’s small team. And the giffgaff team gives back through involving customers in all aspects of the business: product decisions, pricing decisions, marketing, selling, customer service activities…

    Most organisations fail because of the lack of this ‘mutual giving’ ethos and practice. Most organisations are simply technology looking for a use. Or a way of looking to give without actually giving anything that takes real time-effort. Which is what one would expect in a dog eat dog environment. The polite word for that is competition and it is pervasive in just about every traditional organisation that I have ever worked for.

    All the best

    • Maz, thanks for telling me more about how giffgaff got it’s community started. That really helps. Thank you.


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