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Cutting back on phone support.

I had a conversation yesterday with a lady who runs customer service for a company that is growing very quickly. The amount of customers they are signing up is amazing and the company is really stressed out over all of this growth. It is definitely tough to handle what is essentially exponential growth happening monthly.

With such growth, the number of customer service inquires goes way up. They are growing several percent per week in terms of increased number of phone calls and tickets. That is a lot and a lot to keep up with. The staff is growing and they are having trouble finding good employees as quickly as they need to.

It is a classic example of rapid growth.

One of the issues they are debating now is whether or not, and if so, how to cut phone support. She told me they are getting the same 25 questions over and over again and it is frustrating for the staff, time consuming, and expensive. In the same time they a representative can one phone call, they could do 5 emails, or 3 chats.

So, how do you handle it? Here are some ways that I suggested to her that they could cut back on phone support:

  • Offer call backs. Call backs have a lot advantages. Some of them are discussed here in a guest writer post on Service Untitled. They allow a little bit of pre-screening for calls, save money, and are easier to limit.
  • Limit phone calls per account type. I suggested (and they had considered) limiting the amount of phone support calls per month for each account type. For example, a premium account could have 4 per month, and a basic account could have 1.
  • Charge for phone support. This could either be done by itself or in addition to the above. If a customer needs extra phone support (for technical support – sales and billing would be free), they could pay. I suggested a lower fee (like $10 or something per call). This model serves main purposes:
    • Helps recover some costs – $10 is better for the company than free.
    • It makes the customer actually try to fix it themselves or try other solutions (like reading an FAQ) before picking up the phone.
    • It isn’t so expensive where it will cause a customer to get really frustrated and cancel instead of paying the fee for phone support. 
  • Suggest more alternatives to phone support. The company has their phone number clearly posted on their web site. This is great and I commend them for it. However, they can work on making it clear to customers that phone support is probably the least efficient way to solve their problem and they should try looking at FAQs, tutorials, and such before calling. This is probably the least effective solution, but it can help a little. Do note that it is not encouraging the company to hide their phone number or create impossible to navigate menus.
  • Ask some customers. Though I didn’t suggest it at the time because I just didn’t think about it (the lady I spoke to reads this blog), the company should ask some of its best/oldest customers what they want. Some may be furious if they had to use a callback system, others may think it is a good idea. It isn’t something that should be done by a survey, but by having a few members of the management team call the customers and discuss it with them.

There are lots of ways to cut back phone support without cutting back customer service. They really depend on the company and how the company likes to do things. It is an interesting challenge that is not that easy to solve. It likely requires experimentation.

Another thing that we discussed was customers basically asking the company to teach them how to use the software. They already offer lots of guides, webinars, an extensive knowledge base, and all of that, but some customers simply demanded more. More about that tomorrow. I will also touch a bit more on remote employees and how rapid growth companies really need to consider using them.

Next week I will publish the interview with Robert Stephens, the founder of the Geek Squad and a VP at Best Buy.

The ChaCha Experience

If you haven’t used the search engine ChaCha, I suggest you do. It is an interesting experience. The site allows you to search with a “guide” who will do the research for you and find links for you. It is like a human input search engine, with humans translating your text into something that search engines can understand and going through the best results.

The guides are paid by the search and supposedly make about $10/hour. I’ve heard varying accounts of how much they do make, but that isn’t really relevant to this post. There is a lot of help documentation available to them as well as a fairly extensive training process that involves doing about 10 – 20 practice searches with other guides before being allowed to go on your own. After each search, the visitor rates the guides as either Bad, OK, or Great.

Last night I was doing some research for something I was writing. I needed to know the number of bloggers (not the number of blogs – which is very easy to find) and was on the go. I used the browser from my phone and went to ChaCha. This way, I didn’t have to go through page after page on Google.

I typed in my search query and was transferred to a guide within a thirty seconds or so. I explained my search to the guide who said something along the lines of “if it is even available.” A few minutes went by and he sent some irrelevant results (the page specifically said that it was counting the number of blogs, not bloggers), some more (the number of bloggers he sent me was supposedly three times as high as the number of blogs), and so on. I asked him for updates before he sent the first result process and he said “immlooking” and then sent the canned response that was quite a bit more friendly. A few minutes went by with no response (I guess he gave up) and I ended the chat. His rating: bad.

ChaCha has a button labeled “New Guide” right under each search. It could be interpreted as ChaCha not really trusting all of their guides, but regardless, it is a useful button. I clicked it and was transferred to a new guide.

The new guide, I could tell almost instantly was infinitely better. He was extremely friendly. His spelling and grammar was perfect. He used words that actually convinced me he knew what he was talking about. I was extremely impressed. Plus, the found the information I needed pretty quickly.

I spoke to him for a few minutes in between and he told me that he couldn’t think of doing something less than the best he could and that work ethic was important to him. I told the guide that I wrote about customer service and pointed him towards my blog. He liked it and told me he had bookmarked it.

The first guide was terrible and the second one was way beyond average. If they could clone the second one, their service would rival the service that companies like Land’s End provide over live chat.

The second guide I dealt with exhibited the qualities of a good customer service representative. He had a great attitude, was knowledgeable, and resourceful. From what I could tell, he was smart, and he was friendly. He took an interest in my problem (in fact, he said it was an interesting question) and was more than happy to help.

I have no idea if he works in customer service currently, but if he doesn’t, I strongly encourage him to look into it.

I’ve heard that ChaCha monitors the blogosphere so let’s see if they say anything. I also sent the company a note about my experience with the relevant guide information.

Edit: With a little research, I found out the second (helpful) guide’s name is Christopher Wilson. Way to go, Christopher!

Corporate Accessibility & More

I received John DiJulius’ Secret Service newsletter (archive here) today and the main topic was accessibility. He talks about companies that make it very hard (if not impossible) to get in touch with senior managers or executives.

He cites an example of a local car dealership – there is a red phone in the middle of the showroom with a sign that says the phone goes directly to the dealership’s owner. John says this provides peace of mind and a “Zero Risk comfort” in doing business with the company. I agree that it does both of those things.

A word of advise, though, and this could be a little debate between customer service people, but I personally find the concept of having a line that goes directly to the company’s owner, president, CEO, etc. is an idea that many customers won’t take seriously. I believe a sign that says “If you aren’t happy, ask someone to speak to the manger. He’s available.” would be more effective. it doesn’t pressure the chief executive as much and many customers find it to be more realistic.

This comes up with almost every client I talk to. Many believe that having a direct line to them (as the CEO) will help give customers confidence. I can see their reasoning, but I believe that many customers are cynical about it. As a customer, what do you think?

John also linked to a blog post by Mark Cuban about connecting to your customers. The article is an interesting read and worth checking it out. In it, he cites some quotes that I like:

  • You have to re-earn your customers’ business every day.
  • One from Yahoo (Mark asked what Yahoo stood for) and someone said: You Always Have Other Options

Mark tells about how he often sits in seats that are available to general public when his basketball team (the Mavericks) plays. That way, he knows and can receive firsthand feedback about any problems.

He says that executives who travel in big groups, have everything pre-arranged, etc. probably are not confident about their products or services. When you contact them, they respond with forms or assistants (if they bother to reply at all). This definitely makes sense and is an interesting. Mark cares about customer service and tries to make himself accessible. He admits that no one is perfect, but knows that executives who don’t listen to customers won’t do as well as they can. A lot of CEOs and executives could learn from him and his ideas.

Client Relations vs. Customer Service (and an announcement)

I am sometimes asked what the difference between customer service and clients relations is. They seem to be and are quite similar, but there are some differences.

Here is how I understand it:

Customer service – responding to inquires, questions, comments, etc. from customers about a specific issue or series of issues. There are lots of definitions for it out there (this is an interesting page with a few) – some are specific (like mine) and others are more general (like many of the ones on that page).

Client relations – longer term relations with customers or clients.

See how similar they are? Some companies call their customer service department the client relations department and vice versa. It really just depends on the industry and how the company looks at it.

Ideally, your company should do both. Individual actions and service builds up long term relationships with customers. These longterm relationships with customers/clients create more repeat sales and referrals.

How does your company define customer service? How does it define client relations?

The Service Untitled Announcement:
The announcement for Service Untitled today is that it is opening a job board/small job site that is made especially for customer-centric companies and employees seeking jobs at such companies in the near future.

Service Untitled will be working with other customer service bloggers and sites to promote the site. If you are interested in posting a job ad for your company, please email us. The introductory rate is $20 for a job ad that will show up for a month. The rate after launch will be $30 for a one month ad.

Short post today. If you have any topics you would like to see covered here on Service Untitled, please do provide your suggestions!

The Disadvantage in Numbers

The bigger your company gets, the worse the customer service will get. There is actually, in most cases, a disadvantage in numbers. As I mentioned in my post about small businesses and customer service, smaller businesses have an advantage over larger ones because they can give more personalized attention. 

Here are some things that larger (as in more than 2 or 3 employees) can do to help themselves compete with small businesses in terms of service personalization.

  • Follow the Rackspace model and assign smaller teams that deal with customers. This way, you can have the customer interact with 20 people instead of 1,000. It makes a big difference.
  • Make an effort to collect information about your customers and use it to improve the customer service experience. Always keep your ears open when the customer is talking and record anything that may be relevant – at that time or down the road.
  • Use a CRM application or some sort of system to keep track of all of this information. You would be amazed at how powerful the “notes” section of most billing systems can be.
  • Use customers’ names. Plus, try and keep other little things that make a big difference in mind.
  • Have a “go to” person for customers. They want someone they can talk to or email whenever they have a problem. This person doesn’t necessarily need to know all the answers – just be able to find them and/or get the customer in touch with the right person. Then, the go to person should follow-up.

Following these suggestions and always being pro-active will help turn your disadvantage into an advantage. Do other things that big companies can do that smaller companies sometimes have problems with such as having great training programs, hiring consultants to help, doing large scale surveys, using better software, etc. These will help you use your company’s size as an advantage and not a hindrance.

Short post today, but there is going to be a fairly big announcement early next week.

Hospitals and Customer Service

Every now and then I will read a story about customer service at hospitals. Sometimes it is a really good story about a hospital’s customer service and other times it is a horror story.

If you think about it, hospitals should have customer service down. It is really important for hospitals to have great customer service because of the nature of their work. If they mis-communicate something, it could be the difference between life and death, not $10 or something.

Doctors are judged (informally) by their bedside manner. It is by how nice they are, how they can work with you, and how they communicate. It is all about etiquette, but it is so important. A doctor with a good beside manner can make a difference.

Union Square Cafe looks for what they call 51 percenters. 51% attitude and 49% technical accuracy. While I think I’d want more technical accuracy in a doctor (as opposed to a waiter), the concept is important. Doctors who don’t have a good beside manner won’t help you feel any more comfortable with what are you having done.

The hospital as a whole can do things to improve customer service. Many of them improve waiting rooms, try to hire nicer staff, and improve things like food, lighting, etc. These can help make the whole hospital experience a better one.

Hospitals usually have terrible first impressions. The reason you are going there is seldom a good one or one that you look forward to. That leaves a bad taste in the customer’s (patient’s) mouth, but it can be improved. A nice waiting room, a friendly staff, things to do to help distract you, and so on can make the experience so much better.

The same concepts apply to regular doctor’s offices too. Reducing wait times and improving wait rooms, better staff, and so on can all make a big difference. In other companies, these are almost expected, but doctors seem to be somewhat exempt. So, they have a great opportunity to set themselves apart and improve.

Have you had any notable (good or bad) customer service experiences at doctor’s offices or hospitals?

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