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How to run a better bulletin board.

"The number one issue today," says Jim Fitzgerald, manager of technical support for Borland's language products, "is getting information into the hands of users." And one of the best ways to provide such information, he argues, is through an electronic bulletin board system. Unlike "one-to-one" phone support, he says, bulletin boards help users tap into knowledge that is otherwise lost "on isolated hard drives, on sticky notes, and in the brains of engineers."

But setting up a bulletin board isn't as easy as it seems, Fitzgerald concedes. To succeed, a bulletin board has to attract a critical mass of enthusiastic users and "provide a comfortable environment for people to talk to each other." We asked Fitzgerald for advice on how to create a successful BBS:

* Emphasize support for advanced users: Bulletin boards typically

attract high levels of message activity from users of technical

products like languages, Fitzgerald points out. Borland gets

roughly 1,000 telephone support calls a day for its database

products and only 300-400 calls for language products, but both

products generate the same level of BBS activity--1,000 messages

per week. BBS users "want more than access to sophisticated

engineers--they want to get in touch with people who understand

business applications as well."

* Stay involved: One benefit of a bulletin board is that it

reduces a company's overall tech support burden. Fitzgerald says

Borland only has to answer 5%-10% of the questions that users

post on the BBS. But Borland technicians regularly monitor all

messages for accuracy and completeness. "To set up a bulletin

board and then not be there will doom it to failure," he says.

Almost every engineer in our language group participates on a

bulletin board in some way."

* Reward active users: "People really enjoy sharing their

knowledge," Fitzgerald says, but Borland also tries to reward

expert BBS users who provide the most generous on-line help.

These users become part of a "Team Borland" group that receives

free software, access to beta versions, and occasional

reimbursement for connect charges. Borland also flies Team

Borland members out to California every year for a party and

meeting. "Whatever we do for them, it's almost not enough.

They're the people who make it all happen."

* Have a public presence: Even though Borland generates more than

enough message traffic to justify operating its own in-house BBS

system, Fitzgerald says the company prefers to operate bulletin

boards through services like CompuServe and Genie, because these

services attract high-volume message traffic. CompuServe is a

particularly good BBS environment: "The depth of knowledge there

is far greater than on any bulletin board I've seen. If I had my

way, I'd like the whole planet on CompuServe." (Borland does

operate an in-house BBS, but users rely on it chiefly for

downloading and uploading files, Fitzgerald notes.)

* Don't censor your message traffic: "You can't even allow the

perception that you censor anyone's messages," says Fitzgerald.

When customers post lists of bugs in Borland products, for

example, Borland may attach explanations and comments, but

doesn't try to remove the lists. People love it when you're

forthright and honest."

Jim Fitzgerald, manager of technical support/language products, Borland International, 1800 Green Hills Rd., Scotts Valley, Calif. 95066; 408/439-1247.
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Date:Dec 28, 1990
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