Don't Provide Phone Support

How to provide exceptional customer support, without the phone.

Posted by Andrew on 5 August 2015 | 10 minutes

There will come a time in your startup journey when somebody, maybe a customer or a well-meaning advisor, will implore you to start providing phone based customer support. “You have to provide phone support,” they’ll eagerly declare. “I called company XYZ and had my issue sorted in just moments. It’s so much easier when you can just pick up the phone and talk to someone.” This certainly sounds very agreeable.

Yet I’m going to tell you that you shouldn’t; not in your early days and not while you’re growing. While your customer base is small, phone support may seem manageable. Yet, as you grow from 100, to 1,000, to 10,000 customers, cracks will quickly start to show.

The Expectation

Let’s take a step back for a moment to consider why people expect phone support. Phone is currently the de facto channel for most people seeking assistance with a product or service. Though self-service is on the rise 1, many people seek out a number to dial and expect to be able to have their request completed promptly over the phone.

Though most would be reluctant to admit it, there’s an ease (dare I say a degree of laziness) to dialing a phone number, waiting briefly on hold, describing a request, then letting the representative on the other end figure out the rest. Little is required from the caller when phone support is offered. They don’t have to search for the answer themselves. They aren’t required to succinctly document their request. It is certainly so much easier, but it is not a reasonable expectation of your startup.

The Conundrum

The issue here is that the phone support which is perceived as so much easier by the customer is most often delivered by a finely tuned corporate call centre. Call-takers are rostered carefully to meet varying demand throughout the day. These individuals have significant training in well-crafted processes allowing them, individually, to assist the caller in most any request. Where they can’t, escalation paths are well defined and other teams are ready to take the re-directed call at short notice. Good call centres, the ones providing support which is so much easier, are well oiled machines. They’re also costly; an organisation in and of themselves.

Unless you’ve received very substantial funding, you don’t have the resources to provide quality phone support early in your company’s life. It’s not, and it shouldn’t be, a priority focus.

You’re focused on your product or service, your culture, generating revenue, getting investment, growing your business, and keeping your customers happy as you grow. You don’t have the resources to run an effective call centre. And you don’t have to.

One option that you might consider is outsourcing. I’m not going to discuss outsourcing as part of this post, and assume that you want to keep your support in-house. I’ve worked in both in- and out-sourced environments and would be happy to talk to you about my experiences if you wish to get in touch.

The Solution

You can provide an exceptional customer support experience without providing phone support. I’ve worked for companies who’ve done it, and I’ve done it myself. I’ve lead a lean team who supported 50,000 customers, 12 hours per day, via email, with an average response of under 30 minutes. We consistently achieved satisfaction ratings above 95%, during significant growth! The secret is to bring together great people with the right tools and solid processes then advertise your support well and be available to your customers.

People love phone support because it’s quick and easy. If you make your email support clear, fast, and human your customers will love it too.

Let’s explore four recommendations and the benefits.

1. Be Available

Customers become anxious when they need support and feel they’re unable to interact sufficiently with a business to have their request addressed. This anxiety evaporates when they get in touch with a person, when they have a human interaction. People will be hesitant if they perceive your lack of phone support to mean slow support. It’s important that you make your email support a fast, human experience.

First, you should advertise that you provide support. Don’t hide your support team’s contact details at the bottom of an obscure page of your website. Put it front and centre: on your main page, in your app, anywhere a customer could feel anxious or be likely to want to reach out. This advertisement will act as a subtle reminder that, though you don’t offer phone support, you do have a team ready and waiting if the need arises.

Second, make sure you respond promptly. Promptness is relative and you should consider what’s reasonable for your product or service. For example, if you’re providing a financial service then prompt would likely be within an hour or so – few things cause anxiety faster than money. If, on the other hand, you sell bespoke suits then your customers are likely happy to wait a little longer for your response. My personal opinion is that anything beyond 24 hours is pushing your luck.

Be up front and open about your availability and response times wherever you advertise your support details.

2. Find Great People

As I wrote in a previous post, Hiring for Excellent Customer Support, great people are the key ingredient to providing exceptional support. No tools or processes will make up for a poor support hire, so take time to get this right.

Great people provide the human element to your email support service. They will care about your customers, possibly more than even you. They will ensure customer needs are met and will transcend any barriers resulting from the lack of vocal interaction. They’ll know when email isn’t working out and will willingly pick up the phone. Critically, they will value tools and processes as an aid, yet they’ll have the wisdom to know when and how to adapt as unique situations crop up.

3. Install Efficient Tools

The right tools are your secret sauce. Support software such as Zendesk or Help Scout can create incredible efficiencies while being transparent to the customer. Tools can be set up to respond to customers with key information, alert your team to response time slippages, route requests to the most appropriate team, follow up on customers who are yet to reply, etc.

When configured correctly they can aid your team by performing the “busy-work” automatically, allowing your team to focus on interacting with your customers promptly.

The key is to customise your tools intelligently to ensure the human touch isn’t lost. Re-write the default auto-replies (if you need them at all). Subtle alterations can make a big difference.

Andrew has just replied to your request with the following update:” is more human than “Your ticket #3141592 has been updated.

Likewise, “We haven’t heard back from you in a little while now. We hope this means your request is resolved, and we’re eager to hear from you if not.” is less offensive than “Your ticket #3141592 has been automatically closed due to lack of response.

Don’t go overboard here. The idea is to use tools to improve the speed with which you can support your customers; be careful not to let them de-humanise the support experience.

4. Create Effective Processes

Process keeps your support team informed and on the same page. Support teams need to know a hell of a lot. They need to know the product better, and more holistically, than anybody. They need to know business policies. They need to know other teams’ processes so they can interact effectively. I think that, often, support teams aren’t given the credit they deserve given the amount of business specific information they must master.

Process can help here, especially for more complex or less frequently encountered scenarios. I know “process” can be a dirty word in the world of agile startups but, without it, each support team member is left to reinvent the wheel. When they’re having to switch topics every few minutes, with each new customer request, a lack of process is just plain ineffective.

An added benefit of a well tested, documented process is that it can lend itself to automation. Hand a nice process-flow to a friendly engineer, and you may find the solution built in to the next release.

The Benefits

I don’t see email support, done well, as a trade off. In fact, I truly believe that smaller businesses can offer superior support by eschewing phone support. These are some of the key benefits I’ve witnessed.

Scalability

  • As your customer base grows, email support will scale. You may not have the budget for more support team members, yet you can tweak your tools and processes to aid the existing team to interact with more customers. The same is not true for phone support. More customers equals longer hold times and more stressed call-takers. To become more efficient on the phone comes across as brief, less human.

Timeliness

  • Email support is open 24/7. Even if you don’t have team members available, your customers can contact you on their time and terms. Similarly, your response doesn’t require the customer to be available for a phone call. This opens your product or service to customers on the opposite side of the world, who would be unlikely to phone your team during your business hours.
    • A complementary service, such as a thorough knowledge base, can further enhance global customers’ support experience.
  • If your company culture indulges it, your support team may respond to customers outside advertised business hours should they choose. The same does not happen when the phone lines are closed.
  • Your customers never have to experience being “on hold”.
  • Support can follow up with other teams (e.g. Product / Engineering) behind the scenes, on those teams’ terms and time frames.

Quality

  • Email support provides an accurate record, for you and your customer, which can be referenced by both parties in the future. Future requests from the same customer can be assessed against detailed notes, notes which are often neglected when phone support is provided due to the pressure put on call-takers to answer the next call.
    • This accurate, quality information can be shared with other teams (e.g. Product / Engineering) if the request needs to be escalated.
  • They say a picture tells a thousand words. Screenshots and deep-links can be shared in an email to provide your customer with a richer response. This option simply isn’t available over the phone.

Security

  • Good customer service professionals are eager to help. Criminals take advantage of this fact, using a phenomenon known as “social engineering”, where they rely on customer service goodwill to obtain small pieces of information about a real customer in order to build up a larger picture and ultimately commit crime.

    Email support provides less opportunity for on-the-fly manipulation and pressuring, and gives your support team members the opportunity to consult each other before responding to potential bad actors.

Your Thoughts

To eschew phone support is a contentious idea and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts and experiences. Are you aware of any startups doing either email or phone based support particularly well? I’d love you to comment below.


References

1 Customer Service Channel Usage Highlights The Importance Of Good Self-Service (22 January 2015). In Forrester: Kate Leggett’s Blog. Retrieved 31 July 2015, from http://blogs.forrester.com/kate_leggett/15-01-22-customer_service_channel_usage_highlights_the_importance_of_good_self_service


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