Phone support is the black sheep of today's multi-channel support world. Poorly trained staff, misguided processes, and confusing phone systems have all eroded the user experience. On the business side, legacy systems were complex, expensive, and took a long time (and a lot of help) to set up. These factors worked against small and midsize businesses, in particular, who need to be able to quickly scale as business expands.
Yet research continues to show that consumers often prefer the phone to other channels. A phone call makes consumers feel acknowledged, and it's a sure-fire way to get their problem resolved, faster. Still, many smaller and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) shy away from offering phone support.
The truth is that phone support is both a vital and practical part of a multi-channel support strategy. And advances in Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology now make phone support both affordable and easy to manage.
In this article, we’ll look at some of the common misconceptions people have about phone support and at research that explains why phone support so important for SMBs. You'll see how easy it is to set up a call center using an integrated VoIP system, and learn tips for training phone support agents. Last, we’ll walk you through the most important metrics to track to make your phone support effective.
Why phone support gets a bad rap
Many people have nightmarish stories about navigating an interactive voice response (IVR) menu, or being stuck on hold only to have the call dropped. The experience makes a liar of that soothing, upbeat voice assuring them that their 'call is very important.' While IVRs, hold music, and menus intend to help callers navigate support options, they often have the opposite effect.
Add to these frustrations the fact that phone support is often outsourced. Staff at large call centers may not feel empowered to truly help customers, and may feel disconnected. The whole situation leaves consumers with a bad taste in their mouth.
Customer horror stories are exacerbated by old technology. A small or midsize business evaluating the potential of phone support just sees a poor user experience and difficult implementation. Phone support doesn’t seem worth it. In fact, phone support seems like a last resort.
Go for quality, not quantity
Unfortunately, many large phone support organizations focus on minimizing downside rather than maximizing satisfaction, which is why phone support is often arduous. A McKinsey Quarterly article exemplifies this strategy through its findings at a wireless telecommunications provider. After rigorous analysis, the telecommunications provider considered raising service levels to the "delight breakpoint" or reducing them to just above the "patience threshold." Customer-lifetime-value economics pointed to the second option.
Yet for SMBs, which don't often encounter the same volume-related challenges that large organizations do, helping customers reach the "delight breakpoint" can be a powerful weapon in the fight for market share. Great service helps create brand advocates—loyal customers who evangelize a company's product(s) to others. Brand advocates help businesses grow without increasing sales and marketing spending. It’s a mistake a lot of companies make—under-investing in customer-retention spending. Research revealed that brands who increase customer retention rates by as little as 5% can increase profits by 25-95%.
In fact, a Deloitte study showed that brand advocates spend more than twice as much as regular consumers on average. In this way, providing exemplary service to an existing customer base can help small and midsize companies see a return on customer support investments.
Before you can create brand advocates, you must communicate with your customers on their channel of choice.
Customers (still) prefer phone conversations
In Forrester’s “Global 2011 Consumer Preference Report—Contact Centers” study, phone conversations trumped email interactions by a ratio of nearly three to one. To explain this, the study asked respondents to prioritize what they desired in a customer service interaction. Quick resolution and human interaction topped the list:
- "I am able to interact with a customer service representative quickly."
- "My query is resolved quickly."
- "I am able to interact with a person."
- "I am able to access the information I need to resolve my query myself."
- "The customer service representative is based in this country."
The reasons provided by the respondents are perhaps the most revealing takeaway from this study, especially as time marches on and live chat, social media, and self-service options continue to evolve and claim larger (and fluctuating) portions of the multi-channel pie.
More recent findings confirm that voice is still the primary channel for customer service, and findings from our internal Zendesk Customer Service Benchmark in the third quarter of 2013 revealed that the phone actually yields the highest customer satisfaction rating. Compared with service provided via email, chat, web self-service, Twitter and Facebook, a whopping 91% of customers were satisfied with service provided via phone.
How phone support should operate
Effective phone support should be simple. Telephony systems should be intuitive, and help speed resolution. And operational efficiency requires a blend of well-trained, empowered staff using intelligent, well-designed tools.
Here's a look at how phone support should ideally operate:
Calls are fielded in-house. Research shows that in-house employees are more knowledgeable, dedicated, and have less turnover than outsourced agents.
Agents have resolution authority. Research also shows that empowering agents to make crucial decisions on their own speeds resolution and increases job and customer satisfaction.
Your phone system facilitates productivity. A phone system should have the following features or functionality:
- Seamless integration with other channels: Syncs with a customer support platform to prevent data loss, to show agents past interactions, to automatically log call information in tickets or to attach call information to related tickets, including tickets generated from other channels.
- Easy to install: Up and running in minutes, not days, with no complicated hardware or outside help needed.
- Affordable: No setup costs, with commitment-free, pay-as-you-go billing.
- Automatic call routing: Routes calls to the next open agent so that customers don’t deal with confusing or complex menus.
- Voicemail: Allows customers to leave voicemails during off hours or when all agents are busy; voicemail messages should let customers know when they can expect a return call.
- Reporting: Presents relevant key performance indicators (KPIs) in an easily digestible format.
Let KPIs drive decisions. Phone systems with a great reporting dashboard should give you call stats that allow you to tweak performance and spot trends.
Collect customer feedback. It’s helpful to send out regular surveys that measure customer satisfaction and to invite feedback that will help you improve.
Phone support can and does operate this way for many SMBs—especially using new technology. It’s no longer an uphill climb to set yourself up for ideal operation.
Implementing a call center in minutes
There are four key steps to implementing phone support, detailed in the sections below:
- Choose a phone system
- Set up the system
- Implement a trial period
- Go live
Choose a phone system
There are three main types of phone systems:
- Legacy: Analog phone systems delivered through traditional phone lines
- VoIP: Digital phone systems delivered via the Internet
- Integrated VoIP: VoIP systems that link to a customer service platform
Legacy systems have historically involved expensive hardware and professional setup, and don't scale easily. VoIP systems are more flexible because of their web delivery, and don’t require any hardware beyond a computer and headset. However, traditional VoIP systems lack one key component: customer support software integration.
Integrated VoIP systems work in tandem with customer service platforms by linking calls to customer data. Calls are logged in tickets and attached to customer profiles, making it easy to cross-reference a new call with all old conversations—whether they happened on the phone, via chat, or otherwise. Integrated VoIP systems also offer:
- In-browser or handset calling: Agents can take calls using either a computer and headphones, or an IP phone
- Scalability: The system can adjust to changes in volume by adding or subtracting lines with minimal effort
Ideally, you should be able to try a VoIP system for free, and with no up-front commitment.
Set up the system
With the right phone system, setup requires limited configuration and no outside help. You’ll want to establish:
- Available hours: Start with your current business hours and evolve according to customer feedback.
- Hold message or music: It easy to start out with a simple, universal soundtrack and then adjust, if necessary.
- Maximum hold time before voicemail: As a starting point, two minutes is a good rule of thumb.
Focus on making the customer experience as simple and straightforward as possible. If you use menus, limit options to only those that are absolutely necessary for ensuring proper call routing. Let friends and employees test the process before pushing it live to customers.
Start with a trial period
It's important not to overwhelm support staff when trying phone support for the first time. We recommend a one-month trial period, divided into two-week phases.
Phase 1 - Opt for a slow rollout to a handpicked set of customers. Begin by emailing them a short message about the new service. Use these first two weeks to ease staff into the support process (see the section on training and coaching below). Conduct weekly meetings to gather feedback. This feedback can help you tweak initial processes before the second phase.
Phase 2 - In the second half of the trial period, take a closer look at volume and issue type using the system's reporting dashboard. Use this information to gauge staffing needs.
Part of the trial period is determining which customers you should support. This is a crucial decision that depends largely on business goals and product type. For example, consumer goods businesses typically support all customers via phone, whereas service companies may offer phone support to only a particular customer subgroup, such as those with billing issues, or more complex technical problems.
To take your phone support live, announce the new support option via email. Also ensure that the support number is posted on your website, and any relevant social media profiles, if voice support is available to all customers. It’s important to clearly communicate your support hours or to clarify the type of phone support you’re offering (e.g., billing inquiries only). Sometimes a new channel of support needs to be marketed before it gains traction, but it’s best to be prepared for a surge in volume once you go live. Zendesk saw a 40% increase in weekly calls after posting our support number on our site.
Training and coaching agents for success
Taking calls for the first time can be nerve-wracking and kind of scary. You never know what a customer will say, and every call is different. Patient training goes a long way to make the experience good for both agents and customers. At Zendesk, new phone agents don’t take calls until one to two months after starting.
The best way to train an agent for voice support is to take things nice and slow. Once an agent is ready to go live, they’ll be doing a lot at once, and everything quickly. Creating tickets, researching answers, soothing customers—all while actively listening. You’ll want them to feel confident, so here are a few tips to ease your agents in:
- New agents should receive standard onboarding and product training, followed by more intensive training on the tools required to provide support.
- Before diving into phone support, agents must be adept at creating tickets, searching for product information, and using your customer service software. For this reason, it's a good idea to have phone agents begin with email support. This gives them time to learn, research, and dig into your product and tools. You want their online tasks to come as second nature as agents listen to customers.
- Next, have agents listen in on calls and shadow other phone agents to see how they speak and respond to customers.
- Always check in with agents before putting them on the phone and don’t push. It’s important the agent feels comfortable.
- When the agent is ready, have them start by handling voicemails. Without the pressure of a live call, the agent can take time to listen and figure out what the customer needs. Then they can research the answer before returning the call. Someone with more experience should be listening or available to jump in with coaching or support.
Always give your agents the green light to put the customer on hold if they need more time to find an answer or to ask for help.
At the same time, if your agents are comfortable, give them authority to make decisions. Trust agents to handle calls without having to put customers on hold to ask for permission or approval unless it's absolutely necessary.
The stats you should be tracking
Once support is live, it's important to track KPIs to ensure that everything is running smoothly and to detect troubling trends. The phone system's reporting dashboard should aid this process by keeping track of a few key stats, including:
- Total call volume: Total number of calls in a given time period. Look out for drastic swings up or down. This is a signal that there might be a problem.
- Per-agent call volume: Total number of calls per agent in a given time period. Look out for parity across staff in the same role. This should remain consistent over time or increase slowly.
- Average call time: Average time agents spend on the phone across all calls. Aim to keep this low, while focusing on customer satisfaction. Quick is nice, but pleased is better.
- Average turnaround time: Average time it takes to resolve an issue. Generally, the faster, the better. Try to or exceed match other channels.
- First-call resolution rate: Percentage of issues resolved on the first call. Higher is better, but complex issues may necessitate multiple interactions—judge accordingly.
- Abandonment rate: Percentage of calls abandoned before answering. This rate should be as low as possible. Lower the maximum wait time if abandonment rises, and work on speeding resolution by having staff ready to jump in and help out during times when this rate spikes. If you find it spikes with regularity, you may need to add additional staff.
- Average speed to answer: Average time agents take to answer a call (including hold time). Try to keep as low as possible. Voicemail should be set to trigger a few seconds after the average time.
Don’t be intimidated. If you’re unfamiliar with these stats, start slowly and use basic call volume and average call time to determine appropriate staffing levels. Then revisit the remaining stats in a few months, once you’re more comfortable.
Customer feedback is king
The ultimate measuring stick for phone support is customer satisfaction, so find ways to gather feedback whenever possible. Great phone systems and customer service software will provide a simple electronic feedback mechanism, but it may be necessary to seek more advanced methods, such as callback or email surveys. Remember to ask your customers for improvement opportunities. Then, as trends emerge, prioritize and implement the suggestions and feedback that make the most sense for your business.
We live in a fast-paced, multi-channel world where customers who have issues with products or services expect an immediate response. Smaller companies have to compete with their larger competition, which underscores why phone support is an ideal tool for SMBs looking for ways to increase customer satisfaction and drive word-of-mouth marketing.
Now that technology has lowered costs and made it possible to merge channels into a centralized platform, it’s possible for any business, of any size, to offer first-class support.
Zendesk Voice is a simple integrated VoIP solution that helps agents do more, faster, by automatically recording your phone conversations and voicemails in tickets, and linking those tickets to past interactions. Visit www.zendesk.com/voice to learn more.