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.

7 Responses to “Why Phone Support?”

  1. jn said:

    Jul 30, 08 at 2:33 pm

    Thoughts on live chat as a support channel? As a consumer, I prefer it to either phone or email.

  2. Jacob LaCivita said:

    Jul 30, 08 at 5:15 pm

    For a lot of things, I feel that the phone just works better.

    You mention in your post that you feel the phone works better for a lot of things, but you never go on to describe which things you feel these are. Would love to hear examples from your perspective.

    Personally I feel it depends on the complexity of the problem, the complexity of the product, and the savvy/knowledge of the customer who has the problem.

    If the customer doesn’t understand the problem or can’t explain it succinctly, the phone (or chat) makes more sense to avoid the back and forth. If the customer completely understands the problem and just wants to report it so it can be resolved email makes more sense.

    Both have exceptions based on the severity of the issue and how quickly one expects to have it resolved, which leads to the biggest conundrum of all where for some customers EVERYTHING is an emergency. And then you get into scale and costs and the whole thing blows up on you 🙂

    I actually get more frustrated with “phone only” support rather than “email only” support. Sometimes I have a quick “How do I do this?” or “This doesn’t seem to be working right” question or comment. I don’t care how quickly it gets answered, so I’d rather send an email and go about my business until I get a reply rather than be tethered to the phone for 5 or 15 minutes (or even longer).

    Worst of all are the companies that utilize the policy where the only way to cancel service is via a phone call, with their primary reason being to put an obstacle in your way to discourage cancellation and to subject you to a “save team” even in clear cut cases where your mind is made up or no circumstance will keep you as a customer.

  3. sara said:

    Jul 31, 08 at 8:03 pm

    I find that having both phone and email support are both needed – atleast within the finance industry. for two reasons.

    1) some customer prefer phone (easier for them to understand when being verbally spoke with, they aren’t computer literate etc..) while sone prefer email (don’t have time to talk during Customer Service hours, understand written word more than verbal discussions)

    2) some issues are easier to explain in written form, while some are easier on the phone.. and some even need both – email over a spreadsheet and go over it on the phone with the customer.

    often times I’ll tell my phone customers that if I explain it in writing that they may understand better. and other times, I’ll tell my email customers to call me when they have a chance, because it might be better understood in verbal dialogue.

  4. Service Untitled said:

    Jul 31, 08 at 9:28 pm

    JN – I really like live chat. It’s a cool medium. I will write more about it soon.

    Jacob – I feel the phone is better for resolving billing issues, simple technical support issues (where the issue requires more teaching than fixing), and for some sales issues. Complex technical issues are often better handled over email. My general rule of thumb is if it takes more than a couple of emails to fix, pick up the phone. I also agree with you in saying that just phone support is no better than just email support. Customers should have options in all situations.

    Sara – Your points are head on and exactly what I was thinking. The goal is to have the customer understand the issue in a timely manner and that is what companies should work towards.

  5. Ankit Gupta said:

    Aug 03, 08 at 1:48 am

    It comes down to two things for me:

    1. Will customers pay for it or not? In the end, they pay for everything they’d like to have.

    2. What kind of customers am I working with? Look at GoDaddy – they offer things dirt cheap, it “works”, and they offer phone support. They’re targeting the masses, not only the technologists and visionaries who are willing to give something a try even if it doesn’t come with a warranty. It’s the difference between people who bought MP3 players and those who bought an iPod. 2GB of space vs 500 songs. The list goes on.

    Overall, it should be a clear decision. Email is much more efficient, not as customer centered, but it gets the job done. Phone support costs more, that’s basically it, and it gets the job done as well, with the potential of a better experience.

    Last point I want to make – When pizza is delivered, shedding a few minutes off of a 30 minute delivery increases the chance that someone will be a repeat customer by a double digit percentage. I don’t remember that statistic, but even if you can respond to an email in 15 minutes, a phone call might be preferred because it solves it in 12 minutes. Amazing email support is great, but it hasn’t replaced being able to pick up a phone and talk to someone.

  6. Laurie Fischer said:

    Aug 20, 08 at 10:43 am

    I think companies today need BOTH, e-mail AND phone service. You would be surprised at the number of people I talk with daily that ask technical questions on the phone and they note that they do not have a computer. Some people, especially those people who we might consider seniors, still feel comfortable talking on the phone with a human being and don’t have a computer or feel like they can address certain issues by e-mail. Many company forms that you can reach by clicking “Contact Us” don’t address several issues.

  7. Lisa said:

    Nov 22, 10 at 11:57 am

    Well in my opinion both Email and Phone are very important to work faster.Email has its own importance in communication sector.We can contact any time with any Professional as well as Representatives of different institutions.But we can’t deny with the importance of Phone.If you want to be partial in any both of them them you have to prove other ones greater or demerit less.In final words i think we cannot prefer any of them to other either it is Phone or Email. Both have equal importance according to their usage.