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 explore:
- some of the common misconceptions people have about phone support
- research that explains why phone support so important for SMBs
- tips for training and coaching new phone support agents
- 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 Convergys RD and Alorica RD 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
We visited Alorica RD and Convergys RD and they both agreed that 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.
Train and coach agents for success
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 voice support is to take things slow. At Zendesk, new agents don’t answer calls for one to two months after they’re hired.
Once live, phone agents do a lot at once: actively listen, soothe customers, create tickets, and research answers—often at breakneck speed. Agents should feel confident before flying solo, so here are a few tips to help ease them 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.
Once your agents are comfortable, give them the authority to make decisions. Trust agents to handle calls without having to put customers on hold to ask for a manager’s permission or approval before continuing with a resolution.
We live in a fast-paced, multi-channel world where customers 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 to increase customer satisfaction and drive word-of-mouth marketing. Thanks to advances in technology, it’s now possible to lower your costs and to manage multiple channels from a centralized platform. And this, in turn, makes it possible for any business of any size to offer first-class support.
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