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Why Phone Support?

I’ve written about whether or not companies should offer phone support in the past. It is an issue that has and still is being debated by a lot of people – from customer service representatives to CEOs of Fortune 100 companies. One of the more recent opinions on the subject came from Sarah at the Chicago-based software company 37signals. Her opinion? Phone support is essentially a waste of time.

I’m perfectly willing to admit that phone calls are not always the most efficient medium for resolving problems. And I also agree with Sarah’s point that phone support can be cumbersome and inconvenient for many customers, businesses, and employees. And I agree that phone support is not as flexible as email support. However, I do have to disagree to some extent.

To preface a little bit, I am a young guy who has grown up using computers and email. I work with technology companies and I use email a lot, I understand email, and I feel that email is a perfectly acceptable medium in many cases. With that in mind, I also like to pick up the phone and talk to people (or companies). For a lot of things, I feel that the phone just works better.

In her post, Sarah mentions two extremes. The first extreme is in the incredibly inefficient call center where customers have to wait on hold forever only to talk to representatives who know little to nothing. The second extreme is 37signals, where the company regularly responds to emails in a helpful and friendly manner within 15 minutes. I don’t think either case is the norm. Most phone calls at most companies don’t take 45 minutes to resolve and most companies don’t reply to most emails within 15 minutes.

Just like email, phones have their advantages as well. Customers like knowing they can talk to someone and get immediate answers. They like knowing that they get their issue resolved in a relatively timely manner (even if a call takes a half hour, chances are most email support replies do not come in that amount of time) and that they can avoid the back and forth that all too frequently results from email support. A lot of times, a 10 or 15 minute phone call can resolve an issue that would take multiple days of going back and forth via email to resolve.

Customers like being able to call because they can talk to someone live and they can (usually) get their issues resolved before they hang up. Email support is generally much slower than 15 minutes. Phone support is generally much faster than 15 minutes on hold. (This is one of the reasons why live chat has become more and more popular – you don’t need to be on the phone and you can still get help live.)

In my post on this subject that I linked to a bit earlier, I pointed out what I feel are three important factors that should determine wheter or not a company should provide phone support:

  • Does the business model call for it? (Are you a premium or a budget provider? Given your current pricing and profit level, can you afford to provide phone support?)
  • Would the phone help issues get resolved faster? (Talking to someone for the sake of talking to someone doesn’t benefit either party. If issues can be resolved over the phone, then phone support is probably a good idea. If issues aren’t getting resolved over the phone, something is wrong.)
  • What are your customers’ expectations? (Does every other provider offer phone support or is email support the norm in your industry?)

I think these factors are still the case. If you’re planning to be the greatest service provider in your industry, you better offer phone support. In a lot of companies, tech support used to be a 9-5 department. Now, in a lot of companies, it’s a 24/7 department. To differentiate, you usually have to go a step beyond what everyone else is doing.

My main piece of advice is to provide support over a medium that your business is suited for and that your business is comfortable with. Email support alone is obviously working for 37signals – they’re growing and the customers like the company. However, just email support won’t work for everyone. Sometimes it is just necessary to pick up the phone and work with your customers live – regardless of how efficient the medium is.

Define a priority.

Different companies have customers with different priorities. Most companies have customers who share a common priority, though. With technology companies, it may be “uptime” while with other companies it may be “speed”. Smart companies make these priorties a critical part of their customer service culture and then they articulate them.

Sometimes it is as simple as training employees on the “X is our number one priority” mantra and then enforcing that in policies and procedures. Companies that really believe in their priorities have policies and procedures that are consistent with them. It doesn’t make sense for a company to preach about the importance of speed and then put policies in place that make it so customers and employees have to wait in order to do certain things.

As long as the processes are consistent with the priorities, the idea of having a priority to focus on and to rally around is a great idea. It makes it clear what the goal is and it allows everyone to focus what they do around that. The companies that take it seriously will ask themselves the “priority question” before they do things. “How does this marketing campaign convey our sense of being dedicated to uptime?” “How will this upgrade affect our commitment to uptime?” Priorities lead to being able to ask the right questions and having the act of asking those questions become ingrained in the processes.

When priorities are ingrained in both the company culture and the way the company operates, the support and service necessary to support those priorities often becomes ingrained as well.

How Not to Provide Great Service

Vert.Ipod.EarbudsToday I went into a store to get some ice cream and the guy helping me had iPod headphones in one ear – while helping me.

I couldn’t hear if there was music playing, but I think there was because he took his headphones out when I had to repeat my order because he didn’t hear me the first time.

I couldn’t believe he had iPod headphones in while working and while talking to customers. I really couldn’t believe that he still had them in when customers were trying to talk to him and order their food. It was the unbelievable representation of the disengaged worker, but unfortunately very true.

If employees want to listen to music when they do email support, that’s fine with me – it doesn’t affect the customer. However, it is completely unacceptable to be listening to music while helping a customer in person (or over the phone). It is distracting to the employee (obviously) but also to the customer (who is wondering why this employee has headphones in).

A lot of companies give employees walkie-talkies and headsets to go along with those, but customers are used to them. Headphones that clearly go with an iPod in an ice cream store is not normal, though.

Besides setting policies to ensure that the obviously bad things do not happen, it is equally (if not more important) to hire people who care. You want to hire people that want to provide service that is at least acceptable and that is at the very least, distraction free.

Disconnected? Call back.

It may seem like common sense, but calling a customer back if the call is disconnected is not a common practice in call centers. Usually, if a call is dropped, it is a good thing that lets the particular representative move on to the next call. Obviously, that isn’t how it should be.

The procedure for calling customers back may vary slightly in larger call centers, but outbound dialing is frequently enabled in smaller call centers. In small call centers, agents frequently have the ability to make calls to customers and can do rather easily. Most call centers look up customer information at one point during the call and a lot of them have caller ID to make the process of calling customers back even easier.

Calling customers back isn’t complicated. It is an easy procedure to standardize and is technologically feasible in most call centers. And, it can make a gigantic difference in the customer service experience. Besides having to avoid the hassles of calling back and waiting again, customers who receive a call back if disconnected have the opportunity to continue to work with the same representative to resolve their issue.

On the representative side, it probably takes less time for a representative to call a customer back than it does for a customer to call back, go over the entire issue with a new agent, and hopefully pick up where that customer was at before he or she was disconnected. The fewer people involved in resolving the issue, the less chance of someone overwriting someone’s work or misunderstanding what was done already.

The main disadvantage to not calling a customer back after he or she is disconnected is not well founded. If the disadvantage is that calling a customer back takes the representative off the phone for that time and doesn’t let that representative work with other customers, it is ridiculous. The representative would have been on the phone anyway. Customer service departments that care about their customers should not depend on unreliable cell phones or careless agents who may hang up on a customer accidentally to keep their call times down.

So the next time you are disconnected or you hear about a representative being disconnected from a call for one reason or another, call the customer back. It is almost sure to save time, hassle, and aggravation.

Customer Service Checklist: Launching a Product

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Many companies, especially startups, move very quickly. They’re always in the process of developing and launching new products, hiring new people, and so on and so forth. They stay very busy constantly and seem to never have enough time to do all that they need to do.

One of the things that these quickly moving companies usually don’t have enough time to do is properly launch products from a customer service perspective.  They get the product ready in terms of development, marketing, etc., but they never stop to tell customer service and the first time customer service hears about it is when customers start calling or emailing.

Needless to say, this isn’t the best way to do it. It creates a lot of confusion, is bad for morale, and upsets customers. Having a more formalized process that keeps customer service in mind is a much better way to handle product launches.

These are some things you’ll want to keep in mind before launching a product:

  1. Have customer service representatives (and their managers) been made aware of the product by product management? Are they familiar with the products, features, and how they work?
  2. Have they been certified on the product, or at least trained on it? This includes not only using the product, but supporting it as well.
  3. Has marketing given the customer service department a heads up about promotions, discounts, special pricing, and expected volume?
  4. Has engineering or product development briefed the customer service department on expected problems, known bugs, possible areas of concern, etc.?
  5. Are there tools in place that customer service representatives can use to support the product?
  6. Have knowledge bases and other documentation (internal and external) sites been updated / created as necessary?
  7. Has the corporate and/or product web site been updated as necessary?
  8. Have existing customers that might be interested in this product been made aware of its launch?

These eight things are just a start. There is obviously plenty more that should be done and what needs to be done varies from product-to-product and from company-to-company. If a checklist and a process exists, it’s far better than nothing. Creating a process lets companies work through it like it’s second nature. Product launches can be consistent and most importantly, they can go smoothly.

Customer Segmentation

Smart companies segment their customers into different groups. While every customer is important, different types of customers tend to have different types of requests and needs. For example, a customer that has been with a company for two years is going to have different questions than someone who has been with the company for a month.

With that in mind, customer segmentation makes providing customer service much easier. Key customers can have the opportunity to work with the best representatives at the company on more complex issues. There is no need for a key customer to wait in the phone or a ticket queue behind another customer that has a simple issue and makes the company little to no money.

Segmentation makes it so the best customers or the most advanced customers do not have to waste time going up the escalation ladder. It also lets customer service representatives tailor the customer service experience more and lets them know what customers to really go out of their way for.

Though it isn’t purely egalitarian, segmenting does make sense. The best customers do deserve special treatment and special SLAs. If a key customer makes an order, chances are it won’t be a fraudulent order or an order where you need to wait for their bank account to clear. You shouldn’t treat your customers like criminals, but many companies find themselves having to take extra precautions in certain situations. Segmentation allows you to eliminate many of the problems associated with this.

Segmentation can also be useful for dealing with “VIP” customers or customers who have a lot of previous frustrations with your company. It’s much easier to put a customer like that in your “key customers” group than to instruct every staff member to look out for him or her and then try to do all you can to make his or her life easier.

Segmenting is about treating your best customers better. It doesn’t and shouldn’t make regular customers second class citizens, but it should certainly ensure those that are paying you the most or that are most profitable to you have an extra reason to stay with your company.

Do you segment your customers at all? If so, to what extent and how?

Certifying Customer Service Representatives

A lot of companies that have a thorough understanding of customer service have formal processes in place where they certify their customer service representatives in various areas, on various products, and in various subject areas.

The certification usually shows that representatives have passed a test and that they (hopefully) have a certain level of understanding of whatever they were tested on. Once certified, companies will often let the particular customer service representative service and work on that product or area. The more sophisticated companies have a way of tracking where each employee is, what they need to be tested on, and how they have done in the past. The systems let managers quickly determine where their teams are at and where they need to go.

Like many similar processes, the beauty of a system that requires representatives to get certified in different areas is that it formalizes what is usually an informal process. Formalizing the process usually helps to ensure that it will get done and that it will be followed correctly. It sets a standard that everyone can be held to and it helps to deliver a consistent customer service experience. Training is often done in inconsistent ways, but a standardized test at the end ensures that everyone is learning the same material and can perform at the same level.

By taking it a step further and using the tests to ensure that people are competent and certified in different areas, customer service organizations can make the best use of their people, their training teams, and their time.

Let customers down gracefully.

Something I have learned from working in and advising people on customer service is that it is important to let customers down gracefully. I always tell my clients and their employees that customers are interested in hearing what you can do for them. What you cannot do for them is a waste of their time – it doesn’t matter.

With that in mind, it is important to train employees to let customers down gracefully. The answer should never stop at no. And when you do have to say no, have plenty to say right after it. Building a culture that stresses the importance of never saying no will vastly improve the way your customers think about your company and the service you provide. Nothing seems to impress customers more than particular companies going above and beyond to meet their customers’ requests and help them out whenever possible – even if it isn’t standard procedure.

Providing alternatives can be a simple process. The gestures don’t usually have to be grand or flashy – they just have to be thoughtful. Customer service representatives have to think about what the customer asked and compare that to what they are empowered to provide. They should be able and willing to work with their team members and managers to do what they can for the customer. Anything an employee can do to turn a no into an opportunity for service excellence is a step in the right direction.

Customers tend to remember when you do go that extra distance for them. They remember it when they go to renew their service or repurchase and they remember it when their friends ask for recommendations or advice.

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