Announcing Zoho Discussions: Customer and Employee Communities

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Back in early June, James Haftner tweeted: “Holy magnolia, whatever Zoho is using for their forums is slick!“. @James_Hafner. thanks for waiting, here’s your answer.

If you noticed, so far this year we have been trigger-shy on new products – that’s because we have spent a lot of time working on the cross-integration of our products. But today is brand-new-product-day at Zoho. We’re very excited to announce our newest product: Zoho Discussions.

Zoho Discussions allows organizations to create external and internal communities where problems are solved, topics are discussed and ideas are exchanged. Businesses can create a customer support forum where solutions to problems come not only from the company support reps, but also from other users in the same situation. Customers can make their voices heard and vote on what they like – and don’t like. Employees can discuss important topics in an environment that fosters collaboration much better than e-mail.

Connect with and engage customers: Customer Support Forums, Feedback and Product Innovation

Customer support need not mean endless automated voice prompts and a bad experience for customers, nor a costly expense for companies. One of the most important scenarios Zoho Discussions enables is the ability for organizations to better connect with, support and listen to customers through Customer Support Forums.

Customer Support Forums. They provide a venue where customers can find the relevant information they are looking for. But unlike the approaches of a previous generation, it doesn’t stop there – customers can also post new questions or even comment (and vote!) on the accuracy of existing answers. Who answers those customers questions is also different. Customer support reps are augmented by the power of the community and customers helping each other out. When an organization sets up their own customer support forums, they can remain in full control of it. We believe that’s an important point for companies as, of course, they care about their brand, customer experience, and building customer loyalty over time. For example, has built a fully customized community on top of Zoho Discussions.

The other angle of the customer engagement equation is customer feedback and innovation. Many people complain that innovating is hard. Actually, innovating is rather easy. The hard part is innovating on something that customers will actually like – and buy. That’s why customer feedback at all stages of product development is so valuable. For example, Zoho Creator implemented a customer ideas forum back in April. There, we ask the community what features they would like to see developed for the product. Then we go and develop the most popular requests.

Customer and Partner Communities: Intranet and Extranet

Of course, problems and ideas are not exclusive to customers. What in the customer world takes the form of a support forum, in the intranet world it means employees discussing and coming up with solutions to shared situations. Organizations can create an employee community (or for their partners’ extranet). Topics can be wide-ranging: from organizational announcements, anonymous (but controlled) voting on important issues – or even where to hold the company picnic, to employee-to-employee discussions and advice (for example, what health plan should I choose?) and even product ideas – sometimes people with a fresh approach come up with the best ones.

Setting up an internal discussion board for internal use is in many cases a much better alternative to exchanging mass e-mails back and forth. Not only it helps with the e-mail overload, but it creates organizational memory: members of the organization can refer back to previous conversations – even those that happened before they joined the organization, something that is not possible with the traditional e-mail approach. It also fosters richer conversations and the most popular topics find their way to the top quite easily.

Features and Functionality

I didn’t talk about features before as there are just too many and I’d never end. But let summarize them in six broad areas:

Community Engagement. Make it more attractive for your customers and users to keep coming
back: Profiles, user labels, watch lists, real-time discussions and
Topic Administration. Manage
the lifecycle of your posts and discussions: Topic-specific voting,
topic status, best answer/solution, announcements with expiration date
and more.

Content Discoverability
. With Zoho Discussions, content in your communities and forums is easy
to find: Content organization, advanced search, RSS, SEO Options, etc.

Rich User Experience
. Your
users will enjoy using your forums and community: WYSIWYG post editor,
threaded conversations, drafts and previews, preference management, etc.
Branding. Take control of your brand and the customer experience in your
community: Custom URLs, Branding Options, Custom Elements, Customizable
look and feel, etc

. Support more
users with less community administrators: Fine grained access controls,
auto spam, community-marked content, user management and more.

Zoho Discussions also supports Open Social widgets. So for your example, you can maintain a calendar of events in Google Calendar, and then easily publish it to your Zoho Discussions-powered community. You can get the full list at our features page:

We are really happy about this product and have already gotten great feedback from out beta testers as well as from the users who have been using this at @James_Hafner, as you can see, we’ve been trying and refining this for quite a few months. We hope you will try it out and enjoy it too. In the next few months we’ll continue to more tightly integrate all of our Zoho services, and yes – we’ll have some other new exciting services coming up later this year too.