In an ideal world, your customers would communicate with you only during business hours. They would peruse your website before calling you about anything, and place online orders – which you’d gleefully fill while enjoying your morning coffee. You’d never get a crabby email clearly demanding customer support, and you could disconnect your phones.
Unfortunately, the ideal world is far from reality. Your customers are anywhere in the world. They have questions about everything, including things that you’ve painstakingly outlined on your website. They’ll email you when you are closed and leave you a needy voicemail before you’ve had the opportunity to respond. Then, while you’re solving the problem, your Live Chat window will pop open, demanding your immediate attention.
Streamlining your customer communications will make your business more efficient, save you time and energy, and yield a happier customer base.
Assume Nothing, Decide What You Want to Do
Where are you now? If you’re a start-up, consider what aspects of customer “touch” you’re hoping to personally manage in-house. Don’t fall into the trap of setting up full-featured hard-wired PBX phone systems, enterprise email solutions, Live Chat interfaces, and high-touch social media outreach campaigns all at once before considering the consequences.
If you manage any of these things poorly, it will reflect negatively on your brand. It may be better to not offer Live Chat than to only make it available for a few hours a day. Consider: Does “LIVE CHAT IS CLOSED” look good on your website during the 16 hours every day and all weekend that your chat is unavailable? Similarly, it’s probably better to eliminate your email customer support if it takes two or more days for you or your staff to respond. Whatever you are going to offer, only do it if you can do it well.
So, determine what you and your team are going to do well. It’s OK if it’s only one or two things. Then, outsource the pieces that you still want to offer.
Cover the E-Basics
If you’ve chosen email as an option, make sure your customers can contact you through your website. This can be done several ways, depending on your needs. Small entities will need only direct email links, like firstname.lastname@example.org, prominently placed, as well as a Contact Us page, which is a standard requirement for e-commerce sites. Larger corporations may choose instead to implement a “ticket” system in which customers can express a concern or place an order. The ticket will then get routed to the appropriate department for follow-up.
The big daddy of help desk management is zendesk, but there are many excellent options on the market now. Search for ‘best help desk’ and you’ll see tons of great options for managing each customer support ticket or “case.”
Whatever you choose, be sure that you have a way to track the communications. Have your staff make notes about each correspondence in your CRM (customer relationship management) software. In fact, many of the more robust CRMs like Salesforce and Zoho already have ticket systems with built-in tracking solutions. Just don’t drop the ball. Consider what happens if the person primarily responsible for email is out of the office. Who is the back-up?
If you’re the least bit technologically savvy, you can employ Google Apps as your email solution. Mail will professionally come and go from your domain, but be accessible from anywhere, and you won’t have to host an enterprise email package on in-house servers. Depending on the size of your company, Google Apps can be FREE, and there are now countless add-ons and integrations that let you run everything right out of your Google account.
Don’t be a Phone-y
Telephone service options are innumerable, and too complex to address in sufficient detail here. But, you’ll probably desire some sort of phone service. If you’ve got business-class broadband Internet service, your provider may offer a digital telephone service option as a bundle with your access. It’s often possible to find a better deal on a VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) system when NOT using the bundle deal. So, shop around, and don’t be afraid to bargain with salespeople for a lower price.
I’ve had success with RingCentral, Aptela and Fonality — all of which offer lots of interesting call management choices, like call routing, answer anywhere, listen-in and recording of sales people, etc. Despite all those functions, VoIP systems can sometimes be nothing more complex than a special headset and a dialer program on your computer, all connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi. Depending on what you need, PBX and hybrid systems are also available at generally higher costs and complexity.
In many cases, however, you may discover that you can avoid an expensive telephone system if you’re willing to outsource this part of your workload. A call center (or even just an answering service) can field calls for you 24/7/365, take sales orders and provide customer technical support. Your customers will always reach a live human being, and you’re likely to save a lot of money in the process.
Consider the budget implications: To cover your incoming calls 24/7/365, you’ll need 4.2 trained employees working without breaks, holidays, vacations or illnesses. You’ll be providing them with computers, phones, benefits, and very good insurance to ensure their flawless health. You’ll need a physical location large enough for them to work, which you’ll need to heat and keep illuminated. You’ll need to be careful not to lose any sales lest the volume of inbound calls overwhelm the one person on the phones at any given time. Essentially, you’ll need to create your own call center.
Unless you’re in the call-center business, your expertise lies elsewhere. Just because you and your team are great at making recycled surfboard beer cozies, you’re no sure bet at customer support. Call centers add a team of professionals to your operation for a tiny fraction of the cost you’ll incur to do the work in-house. Some call centers can handle Live Chat too.
If you love the idea of offering Live Chat, be sure your website clearly articulates the hours Chat is available, then actively build customer participation. There are lots of good chat clients you can run on your site, like Olark, which you can use to prompt site visitors to chat if they’ve been browsing for a certain amount of time, or reached a specific page.
Off your site, you might consider hosting Live Chat events such as lunchtime feedback or Q&A sessions, and invite your best customers to participate. Google Plus Hangouts now makes it incredibly easy to set up and host live events where you can do all sorts of things, launch new products. Don’t forget to leverage your work in chat sessions by posting the transcripts or reformatted versions of the content to your website FAQ or blog. You have a blog, right?
Whatever you choose, if you clearly steer your customers towards specific methods of communicating with you, they’ll follow your breadcrumbs. Choose only those ways you’re most comfortable with, do them well, and either eliminate or outsource the rest. You’ll free yourself to focus on your business, and you’ll never let down your customers.
You can offer an awesome customer support with the right tools. What do you think? Share your tips in the comments.