How We Built a Community Forum of 50,000 Customers


The Kayako Community Forum has been part of our support ecosystem since almost the beginning. Used by thousands of visitors daily, it’s where Kayako customers can go to get advanced support on their help desk customizations, and learn best practices when setting up their Kayako software and customer service teams.

The most impressive part is that many of these advanced questions are answered by those in the community, rather than Kayako employees. Amassing over 54,000 registered users, and almost 200,000 posts, the community forum has made a real impact on Kayako customers and our product!

I sat down with Gary McGrath, our Head of Community Support, to talk about how the Kayako community has changed over the years, what made it so successful and to get his tips for other organizations starting a community support project.

community manager extraordinaire(Interview transcribed and edited for clarity)

SC: How did the Kayako community start and grow to its current size?

Gary (GMcG): Well, the forums existed before my time. I used to be a Kayako customer. My primary role at my previous company was to improve internal tools – and I had to support Kayako for the entire company. If it breaks for the company, it was on me to fix it.

It was quite important to understand more about how it actually worked. I went to the forums, and honestly, at the time, it was pretty poor. Basic questions were going unanswered. I tried to ask some questions and didn’t really get much feedback. It was pretty disappointing.

I decided to help people with their problems to educate myself. I figured if I can help them with their problems, it would give me a better understanding about Kayako. Unbeknown to me, the Kayako staffs would even go to read my responses to answer support tickets as well – the answers in the forum were more advanced and really helpful!

Eventually, Jamie [Edwards – Kayako’s co-founder] contacted me, thanked me for providing support, completely free and asked, “would you mind if we actually paid you for it?” So that’s how I became part of Kayako.

At the beginning, it was very much me just answering all the questions – every last reply on a thread was me.  But it caused a change on the community where people were so impressed with the help that they got, they then were willing to give back and it kind of went on from there.

SC: How do you encourage members to use the forum and get involved?

GMcG: Do we incentivize people? Not really, to be honest! While we’ve talked about it, but there’s never been anything given out to users of the community. So right now our active community members are people that aren’t incentivized in any way.

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The strength of the forum comes from the simple fact of how useful it is. If support can’t help (for example, evaluating customized code changes), they direct more advanced queries to the community forum. Over times, the forum becomes the place to go. You know that the answers are there.

SC: How do you handle negative comments or discussion threads on the forum?

GMcG: So we ban all the users who…just kidding!

Usually, the negative threads have one of two themes – ‘I’ve tried support, and it was awful.’ Customers come to vent. This is actually quite useful to us. It allows us to fix something that’s gone wrong and helps us improve internal support processes. On the forums we can then fix the actual problem, and the heat disappears.

The second theme is disagreement with company policy, such as changed prices, or features, or if we pushed a release back. For example, when we switched from perpetual to subscription based service, we got quite a lot of heat. Jamie steps in and sets down a company line. It’s great because it’s almost like a phone conversation, but happening in a public forum.

While the person complaining tends to never actually like the response, other community members might step in and support our position.

We never delete responses, we leave the good, bad and ugly up. In fact, most visitors to the forum see the user going crazy, and us (Kayako staff) stepping in calmly with a response that explains the information and the background. We are fair and quite honest.

SC: Do you measure the business impact of the Kayako community support forum? What impact has it had?

GMcG: Absolutely, the forums have directly improved Kayako! For example, in older versions of Kayako, if you enabled “html” within your mail parser settings, malformed HTML would literally wreck the display of the staff control panel so that it was unusable. Most Kayako administrators turned it off by default.

This complaint was made by literally 100’s of people in the forum, so I started some work to make Kayako handle HTML better. With the help of the community to beta test it, I ended up creating a HTML processor which “fixed” malformed HTML, so that it did not break the staff control panel. At the same time, another community member, Martin, had created a different engine to do the same thing, so from the community we had created 2 HTML processors which were both vastly better than the Kayako engine. In today’s Kayako, both those community HTML processors are a part of the product.

The forums have not only helped steer the direction of the product, they have directly improved it for everyone.

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SC: That’s amazing, definitely a big impact that the community has had on the product.

GMcG: And this is not the only example. On the Forge (nb: the Kayako App Directory) there’s been several projects I created due to community interest, but many of these are now marked as “inactive” because they’ve been pulled into the main product as an actual feature.

The forum is also a great way to gauge the effectiveness of a new release – if someone asks to change this setting from default yes, to default no, and 20 other people jump in agreeing, it shows us that we might have gone the wrong way.

It goes the other way too, and you’ll see this on some of the threads. For some feedback requests, other customers will jump in and counter, saying “No, no. I like it the way it is”. But quite often you’ll get a situation where they are all in agreement that a change needs to be made.

SC: Those are obviously some of the success, what’s been the biggest challenges of community support?

GMcG: There’s a couple ways to answer that. Personally, when I started helping in the forums, I didn’t know much about coding, or the inner workings of Kayako, etc. I had to learn a lot about PHP and the back end of Kayako to fix mistakes community was making. If you read the forums, you will see some people are attempting to make big changes to Kayako in certain areas, not only do you have to understand what is it they are trying to do, you also need to understand how they are doing it. This was a key piece to making the community helpful and get that cross community work going.

SC: How did you go about learning those skills?

GMcG: Okay, so I did a brief course in PHP, object development and programming, and found lots of books and manuals. Basically I just sat and read through those and applied the information until I understood it.

SC: What’s been Kayako’s biggest challenge with the community?

GMcG: Well, for Kayako, a big challenge we face everyday is when we look to change the mindset of the customer asking for advice – be it in helping them with some dodgy code, or making them understand they have to alter the way they are working, rather than editing Kayako. Some customers may have a feedback request that isn’t necessarily the best way – so conveying that they need to change their approach to customer support is difficult. Especially because our forum covers the entire world, it can be difficult to convey that what they are doing is wrong, and that it’s not necessarily that the product is broken.

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SC: Has there been any ‘aha’ moments throughout the growth of the program?

GMcG: There was a point where I couldn’t get to the forums for a couple days due to some other things going on at Kayako. When I got time to check the forums again, I was expecting a right old backlog of questions and realized that every question was answered by someone else in the community. It was then we really realized we’d turned the forum into a community.

Because I was always there day in – day out, there wasn’t a chance for other people to get involved. As soon as there was a need – other people jumped in.

SC: That’s a really cool turning point. Do you think other community support forums could benefit from taking a break to see if other people jump in?

GMcG: Potentially, but it depends on the seriousness of question too. Urgent questions like “my helpdesk is down, what do I do” really need employees and support staff to jump in and be responsive. But if they are just asking for opinions and helpful answers, those are the ideal questions to encourage more community voices. More cooks make a better broth, you know?

SC: Any tips for companies looking to start their own community support forum?

GMcG: There’s three really important things to make a forum work.

First, you need to have the correct attitude: a willingness to help. If the support staff is answering begrudgingly, or like they wish customers hadn’t asked the question, users can sense that. Metrics in the forum aren’t often taken into account in performance reviews, like they are in tickets. The support staff isn’t rewarded. Encourage your staff to use the forum – take note of the staff that do and are going the extra mile so you can recognize in performance reviews.

Next, the company reps need to have the skills and knowledge to answer the questions. If you can’t actually help, it’s not an effective community. Don’t choose your worst support people, because they are giving a permanent, public response.

Finally, be honest as much as you possibly can. Your customers are smart and they can tell when you are giving them a line that’s a fob off. Strive to be as truthful as possible. While they might not like the answer, they do appreciate the truthfulness.

SC: That’s a great note to end on. Thanks so much Gary for sharing your experience in building a community.

GMcG: Excellent talking to you, and we’ll speak again soon!

You can find Gary in our Community Support Forum helping Kayako customers every day. Drop him a note to say hello and test his PHP knowledge! 🙂

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