Getting customer support right is probably the single hardest thing for any company, but oddly enough I think it's easier and better for the customer the less formalized and structured the process.
I spent an hour or so on the phone with Apple this morning because my macbook is giving me the spinning multi-coloured wheel of death whenever I so much as try to scroll a window. The support rep was very polite, but as is often the case he took me through a bunch of redundant steps before determining that I'd have to take it into my local mac dealer.
It's Sunday, which means I'm out of luck until tomorrow. So I tried the forum for Macbook issues on the Apple site (which, by the way, probably has the least intuitive navigation of any support portal). No luck, I got an error bringing up the forum (although it's working now).
Anyway, my support woes got me thinking that all of the positive support experiences I've had recently have been on well-organized user forums (fora?), with questions answered by other users, not by the support staff of the company with which I'm having issues. I'd rather find out as quickly as possible whether my problem is common or unusual; whether it's simple to fix or not; whether I can fix it myself or it requires intervention from an admin, or a service visit if it's a piece of hardware.
Some people might cry foul that diverting support requests to a user forum is shirking the responsibility and cost of dealing with customer problems, and in certain cases that's true. It's definitely true in the case of Apple, since they make it quite difficult to contact them directly, even though I paid extra for the AppleCare extended warranty.
No pun intended, but I know it's not comparing Apples to apples to talk about community-based sites and their models for user support, but there are definitely some lessons to be learned, and Apple more than almost any other company prides itself on the cult-like passion of its users. Flickr does a pretty good job with their user forum, with threads marked [Official Topic] being the ones initiated proactively by staff. But then it should, given that its premise is sharing and interaction among users.
But companies that really understand the power of the user forum can be best identified by the tone of the posts. I've written before about 37signals, and I don't mean to make this blog a love-fest for everything they do. But the simple fact that the partners post on the forums and answer user questions directly, often right away, creates an environment in which average joe users like me feel like the company really cares about making the products right. In this environment, users will accept the inevitable bugs and glitches in exchange for feeling like their ideas and suggestions are really taken into account and respected. Much less frustrating than what we're used to.