I had been managing a support team for a few years when my employer partnered with an outside group on a new business venture called Phone.com. In 2007, in the midst of the Global Financial Crisis, any prospect of new business was welcome. My boss approached me and said, “Hey Jeremy, you might start seeing calls, emails, and chats trickle in about this new VOIP phone service. Do your best to handle them and let me know if you have any questions.”
It didn’t take long for that trickle to turn into a mighty river and we struggled to keep up. While I’m incredibly proud of the work we did in those early days to deliver awesome customer service, there are also some things, in hindsight, that I’d do differently. Doing these things would have helped us be more proactive and strategic in our approach. If I could go back ten years, here are four things I would have done early on when the call volume at Phone.com was still a trickle.
1. Be intentional about support hours and channels
One of the things we inherited when we started the new venture were the hours of operation for support. My company at the time offered 24x7x365 support because the competition did, but it was awfully difficult to justify paying someone to sit there idle for hours on end waiting for the phone to ring. A good rule to remember when establishing support hours is that you can always increase your support availability in the future but it’s much more difficult to take it away.
In a similar fashion, it can be tempting to offer a variety of support channels because multi-channel and omni-channel are all the rage right now. But remember a couple things. First, it can be tricky to staff for different channels because the skills and service level expectations from customers are different. Also, text-based channels tend to be less expensive than voice because of the ability to carry on multiple conversations concurrently. At FCR, I see many of our startup clients launch their customer service only offering email support at first. They later add chat and other real time messaging to the mix before finally offering phone support.
The last thing I’d say on this topic is that monitoring social media as a support channel is no longer optional due to its public nature. Sure, if the volume is low, marketing might still own the channel, but someone within your organization needs to be responsible for monitoring social and responding to customers.
2. Double down on self-help
Self-help is your least expensive support channel and, in many cases, determines if customers will contact you or not. It’s important to understand your top contact types and document them in such a way that customers are able to self-solve those issues. New tools like Solvvy, Nanorep, Inbenta, and others use natural language processing to better understand what customers are asking. They’re strategically placed before customers submit a chat or support ticket so they can more effortlessly search for and find answers. The contact deflection rate is tracked, proving the ROI of the tool. On the back end, the questions that aren’t answered get tracked for follow up. Like social media, someone needs to own your self-help to ensure that it continuously improves.
3. Establish a voice and style guide
As I work with clients to set up their quality assurance program, one thing we always discuss is their desired voice and style for the support team. Oftentimes this is something that’s established by the marketing team for marketing communications, but it’s important to make sure that the customer service team is aligned with the company’s other customer facing communication. Here are some important elements you might include:
- Words that describe your customer voice (e.g. upbeat, casual, and empathetic).
- Words and phrases to avoid (e.g. can’t, won’t, and unfortunately).
- Key terminology, like whether you call your customers members, guests, or something else.
- Standards for grammar, punctuation, and whether emojis and acronyms are ever appropriate.
By spelling this out and training teams to work within its parameters, we make all customer communications including marketing, self-help, and customer service more consistent. It also becomes an important standard for macros that are sent to customers and helps give everyone a clear understanding of the quality of work that expected of them. A voice and style guide simply put is about teaching everyone to speak the same language.
4. Know and track the right KPIs
If you’re anything like me, you may be tracking too many metrics. I personally had a gigantic spreadsheet of numbers I was maintaining — many of which were a complete waste of time. While there are many interesting metrics available that certainly have value, you need to establish your main key performance indicators (KPIs) that truly gauge the health of your operation. For your main KPIs, aim to strike a good balance between productivity and quality.
For quality, be sure to balance between your internal quality assurance process and the customer’s point of view, which will typically be Customer Satisfaction, Net Promoter Score, Customer Effort, or some blend of the three. In addition to the metric, this also presents the opportunity to open up a valuable feedback loop with your customers.
For productivity, keep track of the quantity of work for the various support channels you offer along with some form of handle time to gauge efficiency. It’s important to help individuals and teams alike clearly understand how their actions contribute to moving these KPIs up or down.
A bonus piece of advice
There’s one more final practice I wish I had paid attention to early on as a customer support professional. I sometimes kick myself for not spending more time learning and networking with others in my field. It wasn’t until I started reading blogs and books and attending webinars, Twitter chats, and conferences that I really started to learn the vocabulary and skills required to run a successful customer service operation. Common sense might take you a long ways, but a commitment to ongoing learning and improvement in community with other like-minded professionals is invaluable. If that’s something that appeals to you, here’s a list of resources to get started.
Finally, there’s much more than four pieces of advice I can give when it comes to building out a customer service operation. I chose these tips because they represent a strategic, proactive approach necessary to create a great customer experience. Whether your support volume is a trickle or a rushing river, I encourage you to take a step back, look at the bigger picture, and focus on putting these into practice.