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How to Conquer Your Fear of Phone Support

Phone support is an essential part of a multi-channel support strategy, yet rolling out and managing that channel in the recent past has seemed just plain daunting given the tools available, the cost involved, and the burden of training your staff.

Before the SaaS (software as a service) revolution made software much more affordable and much easier to implement and use, phone support was a big undertaking, for small and medium sized businesses especially. However, so much has changed in the last few years and now creating your own cloud-based call center is affordable and easy. No need for any continued fear or anxiety that you might be carrying over from the past.

As businesses shift to a more human-centered, relationship building approach to customer service, directly connecting with customers via the telephone continues to play an important role, perhaps even more so. Bots haven’t replaced fellow humans yet when it comes to making direct connections and resolving problems for unhappy or frustrated customers. A phone conversation makes a customer feel that they’re being acknowledged and their issues are being dealt with immediately.

In this guide, we explore why it’s time to let go of any remaining notions against phone support, show you that customers still prefer to use the phone, provide advice for rolling out a phone channel, and also offer best practices for monitoring the success of your phone channel.

Phone support’s bad reputation

Who hasn’t had an incredibly annoying experience trying to navigate an interactive voice response (IVR) menu or getting stuck on hold only to have the call dropped? Hold music? We all know how easy it is to lose your mind listening to a short loop of a very annoying pop song.

Add to these frustrations the fact that phone support is often outsourced to call center agents who don’t know the products or services very well and rely on scripts, whose performance goals are based on speed not customer satisfaction, and who often aren’t empowered to make decisions necessary to resolve issues. Phone support done that way can lead to a poor customer experience. Yet, customers continue to prefer the phone to many other support channels (we’ll look at some of the data that proves that shortly).

Aside from the risk of developing a reputation for lousy customer experiences, there are organizational challenges as well. Agents must be trained to use the new channel and interact with customers in real time. Plus, you already have other channels to keep you plenty busy. Perhaps most worryingly, with a phone number, the difference between having enough agents to answer the calls and not is a cliff — no one wants to be the business that puts customers on hold for forty-five minutes.

But phone support doesn’t have to be a bad experience or major hassle, and it might just be one of the most valuable ways for you to build better customer relationships.

The reality is that customers like using the phone

Did you know that 48% of all support interactions take place over the phone and 80% of consumers choose it as their preferred way of interacting with customer service reps? It also results in high customer satisfaction, coming in with the second highest CSAT score at 88%, just slightly edged out by live chat at 92% in a recent Zendesk benchmark study.

The ROI on customer satisfaction and effort reduction

The time each agent spends on the phone with a single customer might be a very important data point for you—because it has a cost. Shorter calls and quicker resolutions mean that the agent can move on more quickly to help another customer; however, longer calls allow for deeper emotional connections and provide the opportunity for the agent to go above and beyond. What’s the sweet spot that balances cost with customer satisfaction?

Based on the research done by the authors of The Effortless Experience, we’ve learned in the last several years that what customers want most is the path that requires the least amount of effort on their part. They don’t want to interact with your customer service team in the first place, and, in fact, having to do so often makes them less loyal customers.

So, you hit the sweet spot when the support you provide reduces customer effort and gets to resolution quickly. That’s why how you set up your phone support experience is crucial. Many times, the phone provides the path of least resistance, is the quickest way to put things right, and, done well, results in satisfied customers who remain loyal and help to promote your brand and build your business.

A better way to do phone support

Phone support can be an extension of the kind of support you already provide — a new tool for your multi-channel approach to customer service that reflects your style, tone, and brand. It doesn’t have to be complicated, difficult to manage, impersonal, or an overall bad customer experience (if you choose your hold music wisely!).

From an organizational and customer experience perspective, we’ve found that a superior phone support experience begins with the following:

  • Using knowledgeable in-house agents to handle calls. In-house agents are more knowledgeable and dedicated. They quit less often because they’re usually more engaged in their careers than a typical call center agent. There’s less turnover and therefore more knowledgeable and skilled agents available to help customers.
  • Empowering your agents to resolve issues. Research also shows that empowering agents to make the decisions required to resolve customer issues more quickly increases their effectiveness, their job satisfaction, and most importantly, customer satisfaction.
  • Training agents to help reduce customer effort. This starts by listening attentively and empathizing so that the agent understands what the customer needs, uses positive language, speaks in way that connects with the customer’s personality, and actively manages the customer’s emotions and experience. Agents can also help reduce effort by anticipating other issues that the customer may not be aware of and dealing with those while they have the customer on the phone.

On the tools side, you want a system that leverages all the benefits that SaaS provides and includes key call center features, such as the following:

  • Easy to set up and deploy. Use a system that can be up and running in minutes, not days, with no complicated hardware or outside technical help needed.
  • Seamless integration with your other support channels. Your system should be completely integrated into a customer support platform that is built on a single user management and ticketing system. In other words, the phone is just one channel of many that your customers can communicate with you, and that tickets can be generated, managed, and resolved.
  • Flexible IVR and smart call routing. An effective IVR routes customers to the right agent for the type of support they need, directs them to recorded responses to reduce agent interaction, and provides overall a simpler and better customer experience.
  • Voicemail. Allow customers to leave voicemails during off hours or when all agents are busy. Integrate a system that automatically creates tickets from these voicemails.
  • Reporting. Access reporting tools that present relevant key performance indicators (KPIs) in real-time dashboards that allow managers to monitor and adapt to fluctuations in call volume.
  • Scalability. Easily and inexpensively scale the number of calls that can be received on a single telephone number.
  • Texting. Remember the phone is also a channel for texting, which as you know is an extremely popular way of communicating. Your system should be able to handle texts as well voices and like voicemail generate tickets and be completely integrated into the support workflow.
  • Callback. Instead of forcing customers to wait on hold, give them the option to receive a callback when an agent becomes available.

Launching your new call center

Now that you have a better understanding of why phone support is a vital part of a multi-channel strategy and the essential elements that will make it a success, let’s look at the five main steps involved in rolling out a new call center:

  1. Choose your VoIP phone system
  2. Define your phone channel customer experience and support workflow
  3. Set up a failover system
  4. Test your phone channel before you roll it out
  5. Go live

We’ll explore each of these steps in the following sections.

Choose your VoIP phone system

You have two options for a VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) based phone system: integrated with a customer service software platform—like Zendesk Talk, or not. In the latter case, think of systems that provide businesses with the digital equivalent of the general office phone system or conferencing services. They serve vital business needs, but are not purpose-built for customer service.

Customer service integrated VoIP systems work in tandem with customer service platforms by linking calls to a single customer data and ticketing system. Phone conversations are just another communication channel for your customers (like email, chat, and social media) and like other channels result in tickets linked to customer accounts. Also like those other channels, the interactions happen within the help desk, not separate from it.

Define your phone channel customer experience and support workflow

After you have your new VoIP system in place, you need to configure the experience for customers (e.g., how they’ll navigate the IVR, how long they’ll wait on hold before being sent to voicemail, etc.). You must also define your support workflows for call routing and so on. Here are some of the things you’ll want to define when setting up your phone channel:

  • Available hours. Determine the hours that agents are available to answer calls, which might correspond with your normal business hours. Outside of those hours, voicemail is available to generate tickets for agents to follow up on when normal business hours resume.
  • Greetings and hold music. All the messages that your customers hear when they call should reflect your brand and accurately guide them through the IVR and any self-help resources (such as pre-recorded support messages that are available). Your hold music matters as well. It not only represents your brand, it defines the on-hold experience. You don’t want to agitate your customers before they’ve even had the chance to speak with an agent, do you?
  • Hold time before being sent to voicemail. How long will your customers wait on hold in the queue before being sent to voicemail? Waiting on hold is incredibly frustrating for customers. If the wait is longer than a few minutes due to call volume, then it’s best to guide them to voicemail so that they’ll get an agent callback instead.
  • Routing rules. Your IVR should very clearly and easily present customers with a simple list of options for the type of support they need (e.g., a billing question versus a technical issue). On the back-end, these customer choices are tied to the automated workflow that you define — which team of agents are tasked with supporting the different issues, the priority assigned to them, and so on.

Focus on making the customer experience as simple and straightforward as possible. Limit IVR options to only those that are necessary for ensuring proper call routing and self-service. Usability test how you’ve defined your IVR experience before rolling it out to your customers.

Set up a failover system

It’s a fact that sometimes VoIP systems go down for short periods of time. To keep your phone support up and running during these rare outages, it’s a good idea to set up a failover system.

A failover system can be as simple as setting up another phone line to switch over to in the event of an outage. You can reroute calls to another VoIP phone number on a different system, a mobile phone number, or even a plain old telephone service (POTS) line. The ideal failover would be a VoIP line that captures voicemail as email messages, which can then be forwarded to your help desk for follow-up as tickets.

Test your phone channel before you roll it out

Rolling out any new support channel has its challenges; however, providing phone support does take some extra care to do it well. The customer experience must not only be easy to manage, but your agents also need to be well-trained to interact directly with customers who are oftentimes frustrated or flat-out angry (we’ll look at soft skills training for phone agents below in Training agents to use the phone channel).

A phased approach

It’s best to take a phased approach to the rollout. We recommend a beta 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. Conduct weekly meetings with the phone channel support agents to gather feedback about the beta and then use that feedback to make improvements for phase two.

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.

Go live

Before you go live, you’ll want to determine which customers you’re going to support using the phone channel. It could be all of them, or select groups of them. 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, more complex technical problems, or premium customers.

When you’re ready to take your phone channel live, announce the new support option via email and any of the social media channels you use to communicate with your customers (if your phone support is going to be available to all your customers). Also ensure that the support number is posted on your website and any relevant social media profiles.

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 support channel 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 we posted our support number on our site.

Training agents to use the phone channel

Taking calls for the first time can be nerve-wracking. Agents never know what a customer will say, and every call is different. That’s why the best way to train an agent for phone support is to take things slow. At Zendesk, new agents don’t answer calls for the first five weeks after they're hired and trained.

When your phone channel is live, phone agents have a lot to manage. They need to actively listen, soothe upset or angry customers, create tickets, and research answers—often at breakneck speed. Therefore, they should feel confident before flying solo. Here are a few tips to help ease them into this role:

  • Before diving into phone support, agents must be well-trained in the general support role: creating tickets, searching for product support information, communicating clearly, and using your customer service software. For this reason, it's a good idea to have agents begin with email support. This gives them time to learn, research, and dig into your products and tools before interacting with customers live.
  • Next, have agents listen in on calls and shadow other phone agents to monitor how they speak and respond to customers. It’s a lot easier to learn the proper tone by listening to someone talk, than it is by reading about what it should sound like.
  • Have them learn the phone support best practices that we’ve provided in How to interact with customers on the phone. Also, we’ve provided some useful advice on understanding why customers get angry and how to handle them when they are in Why are my customers angry?.
  • Get agents started in phone support by having them handle voicemails first. 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. Have someone with more experience available to listen in or jump in with coaching or support if needed.

When agents are working the phone channel live, give them the green light to put the customer on hold if they need more time to find an answer or to ask for help. Document the kinds of decisions the agent can make on their own, and which they need to get a manager's approval for.

Phone channel metrics you should be tracking

After your phone channel is live, it's important to track KPIs to ensure that everything is running smoothly. This means monitoring individual agent and team performance and keeping an eye out for trends that may signal trouble or the need for adjustments to your staffing model. The phone system's reporting dashboard should aid this process by keeping track of key metrics, including the following:

  • Daily call volume. Monitoring the number of calls you receive per day (and even down to the exact hours of the day) helps you track what days are your busiest and how your staffing plan matches up to the volume.
  • Per-agent call volume. Daily call volume gives you insight into how many calls your entire phone support staff handles, but it’s also helpful to know how many calls each agent takes. This can be very helpful for tracking the performance targets you set for agents based on the type of support they provide.
  • Average talk time. Monitor the average talk time across the entire phone support staff and for each agent individually. As with call volume, this can help you track performance targets. Also, if the average talk time is unacceptably long, it may also indicate that your staff needs more training and that customer satisfaction may be in danger of falling.
  • Time spent in IVR. This is an interesting metric because it can help you understand the IVR experience. If your customers spend too much time navigating your IVR, it may indicate that it’s a poorly designed experience and that they’re confused. On the other hand, if you’ve invested in self-service support as part of your IVR, spending time in your IVR may be a positive outcome, an indication that your self-service support is being used.
  • Wait time. By tracking wait time you can monitor both your staffing level (not enough staff, too many customers on hold) as well as agent performance (e.g., how long the customer is put on hold after the agent picks up the call).
  • Abandoned calls. How often do your customers abandon their calls? This may be another good indication that you’re understaffed if the average is high. Along with overall call volume, this metric can be used to help inform you of when to add extra staff to handle spikes.

Ask your customers how you're doing

The most important measure your new channel’s success is how satisfied customers are with it. Since you now know that the phone already provides the second highest level of customer satisfaction, you’ve got a good start. However, it’s always a good idea to see how your implementation of phone support is going over with your customers. You don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past and stick them with a lousy and frustrating experience.

Take advantage of the tools available to measure their satisfaction. Customer service software provides simple feedback mechanisms such as ticket close satisfaction surveys, but it may also be necessary to use more advanced methods, such as customer satisfaction or NPS (Net Promoter Score®) surveys. Remember to ask your customers for improvement opportunities. Then, as trends emerge, prioritize and implement the suggestions that make the most sense for your business.

Conclusion

We live in a fast-paced, multi-channel world where customers expect an immediate response. Smaller companies must compete with their larger competition, which underscores why phone support is an ideal tool for small and medium sized businesses looking to increase customer satisfaction. Thanks to SaaS and VoIP, it's now possible to cost-effectively manage multiple channels from a centralized cloud-based customer service platform. And this, in turn, makes it possible for any business of any size – including yours – to offer first-class support.

To learn more about Zendesk Talk, a robust and integrated VoIP customer service solution, visit www.zendesk.com/talk.