Phone support is the black sheep of today’s multichannel support world. Poorly trained staff, misguided processes and confusing phone systems have eroded the user experience and given phone support the reputation of being irritating and ineffective for consumers.
However, research shows that consumers prefer phone calls to other channels because they feel acknowledged and receive faster resolution. Yet in spite of the studies, many small and medium businesses (SMBs) have shied away from offering phone support because complex legacy phone systems require expensive hardware and lengthy professional setup, and are tough to scale as business and support needs grow. They’ve yet to realize the truth—that advances in Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology are making phone systems far more affordable and easier to set up and manage.
In short, phone support is a vital and practical part of a multichannel support strategy.
This paper touches on common misconceptions around phone support and delves into the surprising research that shows why it’s so important for SMBs. It then describes how to implement a call center in minutes, using an integrated VoIP system, and covers best practices for tracking and analyzing phone support effectiveness.
Phone Support Stigma
Most people have nightmare stories of hopelessly attempting to navigate an interactive voice response (IVR) menu, or getting stuck on hold for 30 minutes while an upbeat voice regularly assures them that their “call is very important.” IVRs, hold music and complex menus are all intended to help callers navigate the support process, yet they often have the opposite effect. Combine a confusing process with poorly trained, unempowered and often outsourced staff (as is the case at many large call centers), and you have a recipe for a poor user experience.
For SMBs evaluating phone support’s potential, these customer horror stories are exacerbated by complex legacy phone systems with implementation processes that require expensive equipment and lengthy professional setup. Poor user experience and difficult implementation? It’s easy to see why many SMBs see phone support as a last resort.
Quality, Not Quantity for SMBs
Unfortunately, many large phone support organizations focus on minimizing downside rather than maximizing delight, which is why phone support is often arduous. A McKinsey Quarterly article exemplifies this strategy through its findings at a wireless telecommunications provider, which after rigorous analysis, “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 option1."
Yet for SMBs, which don’t often encounter the same volume-related challenges that large organizations face, delighting customers 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 drive loyalty and growth without increasing sales and marketing spending. When combined, sales and marketing spending averages five times more than customer-retention spending2.
Further, a Deloitte study shows that brand advocates are more profitable than average consumers, spending more than twice as much on average3. In this sense, providing exemplary service can help SMBs realize measurable returns on their customer support investments.
But in order to create brand advocates, companies must first reach customers on their channel of choice.
The Surprising Research: Consumers Prefer Phone Conversations
A 2011 customer support study by callcentres.net and Forrester Consulting found that phone conversations trump email interactions nearly three to one, with 44 percent of those surveyed listing “phone conversation” as the most often used communication method in the prior three months, compared to just 15 percent for email4. The same study also found that 79 percent of those surveyed listed voice conversations among their preferred channels, while only 33 percent listed email—the second most popular channel.
Phone conversations are both more popular and preferred over other customer support channels. (Source: Forrester Consulting)
To explain these preferences, the Forrester Consulting study asked respondents to prioritize what they desire 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."
It’s clear that consumers believe phone calls are more efficient and empowering than other channels. Indeed, many issues benefit from a conversation’s delay-free response. An internal Zendesk customer support study confirms these findings, showing that phone calls reduce the number of interactions per issue by 17 percent.
Completing the Support Puzzle
As useful as it can be, phone support alone isn’t the answer to increasing support efficiency. It’s one part of a multichannel strategy that includes digital and social channels such as email, Web forms, Twitter® and others.
How Phone Support Should Operate
Effective phone support is simple and intuitive to use, and resolves issues quickly. Attaining this kind of operational efficiency requires a blend of empowered staff and intelligent tools working together to keep conversations moving and ensure that agents never skip a beat. Here’s how it operates:
- In-house employees field calls - Employees are more knowledgeable and dedicated, and according to research, have less turnover than outsourced agents.
- Agents have resolution authority - Research shows that empowering agents to make crucial decisions speeds issue resolution and increases job and customer satisfaction.
- Phone system facilitates productivity - The proper system provides agents and managers the necessary tools to resolve issues and track productivity through the following:
- -Seamless integration with other channels - Syncs with customer support software to prevent lost data and ensure any agent can quickly get up to speed on past interactions, which automatically logs call information in tickets to prevent lost data and records customer information easily and attaches it to related tickets—including those from other channels (chat, email, social media, etc.)
- -Easy to install - Up and running in minutes, not days, with no complicated hardware or outside help needed
- -Affordable - No setup costs and commitment-free pay-as-you-go billing
- -Automatic call routing - Avoids confusing customers with complex menus by routing calls to the next open agent
- -Voicemail - For off hours or when all agents are busy; voicemail messages should let customers know when they can expect returned calls
- -Reporting - Presents relevant key performance indicators (KPIs) in an
easily digestible format
- KPIs drive decisions - Call statistics in the phone system’s reporting dashboard allow you to tweak performance and spot troubling trends.
- Customer feedback rules - Performing regular surveys that measure customer satisfaction and seek advice on improvement opportunities ensures that the process continues to improve.
Phone support can and does operate this way for many SMBs. With new technology lowering the price, simplifying setup and management, and helping integrate phone calls with other channels, it’s easy to achieve an ideal operation with few setup headaches.
Implementing a Call Center in Minutes
There are four key steps to implementing a phone support operation:
1. Choosing a phone system
There are three main phone system types:
- Legacy - Analog phone systems delivered through traditional phone lines
- VoIP - Digital phone systems delivered via the Internet
- Integrated VoIP - VoIP systems that link to help desk software
Legacy systems aren’t well suited to SMBs because they require expensive hardware and professional setup, and they don’t scale easily as businesses grow. VoIP systems are more flexible because of Web delivery, and they require no hardware beyond a computer and headset. However, traditional VoIP systems lack one key component: customer support software integration.
Recently developed integrated VoIP systems link phone calls to customer support software to close the loop on customer interactions. Calls are logged in tickets and attached to customer profiles, making it easy to cross-reference a new call with all old conversations—phone, Web or otherwise. These systems help agents log information and resolve issues without worrying they’ll forget something. Further, they offer:
- In-browser or handset calling - Take calls with a computer and headphones or an IP phone
- Scalability - Adjust to changes in volume by adding or subtracting lines with minimal effort
If possible, find a system with a free trial and no up-front commitment to avoid being locked in to a suboptimal solution.
2. Setting up the system
With the right phone system, setup requires only a few clicks of the mouse and no outside help. Once it’s ready, but before you start taking calls, there are a few things to establish:
- Available hours - Start with business hours and evolve according to customer feedback.
- Hold message - Start with a simple, inoffensive soundtrack and adjust if necessary.
- Maximum hold time before voicemail - Two minutes is a simple starting point, but adjust down the road.
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.
3. Starting with a trial period
It’s important not to overwhelm support staff when trying phone support for the first time. A one-month trial period divided into two-week phases can work wonders for first-time organizations.
Phase 1 - Opt for a slow rollout to a handpicked set of customers by emailing them a short message about the new service. Use this first period to ease staff members into the support process. Conduct weekly meetings and seek feedback from both staff and customers. Evaluate their feedback and tweak the process accordingly before the second phase.
Phase 2 - In the second half of the trial period, take a closer look at issue type and volume using the phone system’s reporting dashboard. Use this information to gauge staffing needs based on the number of customers you hope to support.
Which customers should you 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 only allow a certain customer subgroup because problems are more complex.
4. Going live
Announcing support should be done via email and, if all customers will receive support, by posting the number on your website and in regular customer communications. Be prepared - Zendesk saw a 40 percent increase in weekly calls after posting our support number to our site.
Tracking and Optimizing
Once support is live, it’s important to track KPIs to ensure that everything is running smoothly and 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
Definition - Total number of calls in a given time period.
What to look for - Drastic swings up or down that signal problems.
- Per-agent call volume
Definition - Total number of calls per agent in a given time period.
What to look for - Parity across staff in the same role. This should remain consistent over time or increase slowly.
- Average call time
Definition - Average time agents spend on the phone across all calls.
What to look for - Keep low, while focusing on customer satisfaction. Quick is nice, but delighted is more important.
- Average turnaround time
Definition - Average time it takes to resolve an issue.
What to look for - The faster, the better. Try to or exceed match other channels.
- First-call resolution rate
Definition - Percentage of issues resolved on the first call.
What to look for - Higher is better, but complex issues may necessitate multiple interactions—judge accordingly.
- Abandonment rate
Definition - Percentage of calls abandoned before answering.
What to look for - Should be as low as possible. Lower the maximum wait time if abandonment rises, and work on speeding resolution. Adding staff is a last resort, but is sometimes necessary.
- Average speed to answer
Definition - Average time agents take to answer a call (including hold time).
What to look for - Keep as low as possible. Voicemail should trigger a few seconds after the average time.
Don't Be Intimidated
For first-time users who are unfamiliar with these stats, start slowly. Use basic call volume and average call time to ensure appropriate staffing, and then revisit the more advanced stats after a few months.
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 help desks 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 for improvement opportunities to spot easy ways to increase customer satisfaction. As trends emerge, prioritize the correction and improvement options and implement the ones that make sense.
We live in a fast-paced, multichannel world where customers who have issues with products or services expect immediate responses. Phone support is an ideal tool for SMBs looking for ways to increase customer satisfaction and drive word-of-mouth marketing. With new technology simplifying implementation, lowering costs and merging channels into a centralized dashboard, any business can offer first-class support faster than ever before.
Zendesk Voice is a simple VoIP solution that integrates with our award-winning customer support software. It helps agents do more, faster by automatically recording your phone conversations and voicemails in tickets, and linking those tickets to past interactions. Zendesk Voice seamlessly integrates your phone conversations with other channels, including web forms, email, social media, and chat. Simply register for Zendesk, click to add Zendesk Voice and you can begin accepting calls in less than five minutes. There's no hardware required - just a computer, a headset and a broadband connection. Visit www.zendesk.com/voice to learn more about Zendesk Voice.
1Adam Braff and John C. DeVine, “Maintaining the customer experience,” McKinsey Quarterly, December 2008, accessed January 22, 2012, https://www.mckinseyquarterly.com/maintaining_the_customer_experience_2259.
2Lou Dubois, “How to Best Utilize the New Foursquare for Business,” Inc. Magazine, January 27, 2011, accessed January 22, 2012, http://www.inc.com/guides/201101/how-to-use-the-new- foursquare-for-business.html.
3Pat Conroy and Anupam Narula, A new breed of brand advocates: Social networking redefines consumer engagement, (Deloitte Development LLC 2010), 5.
4Global 2011 Consumer Preference Report – Contact Centers, (Forrester Consulting, 2011).