How I almost ignored our single best source for customer feedback.

Back in mid-2009 when we were building A Story Before Bed a children’s books online service for its eventual launch in the fall of 2009 we had a talk about how to support our eventual customers. I remember reading a blog post (which I can’t find now – please post in the comments if you remember it) about how putting an 800 number on your website made people much more willing to give you their credit card numbers. We decided that having free 1-800 tech support for our site was going to be a differentiator for us. It’s not often you find a consumer website these days that provides that level of support. Typically if there even is a phone number it’s buried under layers and layers of FAQs, knowledge bases, and e-mail forms. It often seems like companies will do anything possible to avoid actually speaking to a customer. I’ve experienced this many times as a customer and I know how it makes me feel. Like crap. And yet, as a business owner, I read all this reluctance as an indicator of how costly and time consuming it is to provide person-to-person customer support. I was nervous.

At first I suggested that the 1-800 number would ring my cell phone. This wasn’t some altruistic desire to connect with customers, but me being cheap. My partner Walter laughed at me. He pointed out this would not be a good use of my time as we would no doubt be inundated by calls, and I had lots of other stuff to do. I was a little embarrassed, but he’s annoyingly right almost all of the time. I spent months looking for firms to which I could outsource our phone support. I finally found one in the Philippines. Our operator was very nice. She was dedicated to our product. And could chat with her over IM, even when she was on call (to which I could listen in on). Her attitude was just wonderful, but there was no way she could know the product the way I did. She also couldn’t know how much we cared about making our customers happy. One day I discussed with her when to give a refund. I told her we had a no questions asked 7 day refund policy. She asked what to do if the person wanted a refund on day 8? I told her to go ahead and give it anyway. There were a lot of situations like this that had to be spelled out. To the letter.

We launched, and she handled calls. She definitely did her best, and it was great to know that our customers had someone they could rely on. And while we didn’t have a huge number of customers, we woefully overestimated how many support calls they would generate. It’s not that our product was perfect. It definitely wasn’t. It’s just that while the 800 number may have made people feel comfortable using the site, for the most part, they didn’t use it. My rough calculations show about one support call out of every 100 registered users, if that. After a couple of months of paying an incredible amount of money to handle the handful of calls we decided to bail and go back to the original plan. We set up a new 800 number that rings straight to my cell phone. Caller ID lets me distinguish between my mom calling and a customer needing help. And now, every few days, I get a phone call from a customer who has a question about our service.

When I used to work at a large software company, I couldn’t imagine many jobs worse than being a tech support person. Perhaps it was my own interaction with support folks stuck supporting products they almost never had control over, and often didn’t have enough expertise in. Or maybe it was all the effort that companies make to avoid being on the phone with customers in the context of support that made me assume it’s something to be avoided. It turns out that answering our support calls has been an incredibly productive experience as well as potentially a profit center. When customers call, not only am I in a great position to help them as I understand the product inside and out, but their questions and feedback are essentially a free focus group. We always have a list of improvements we need to make to the product, but sometimes prioritizing can be a crapshoot. Vocal customers tell me quickly which work items need to move to the top of the list. I can only imagine how many customers of ours experience the same frustration as these callers but don’t bother picking up the phone. I think of our support callers as unelected representatives of our customer population. Each of them represents a non-trivial number of users who (understandably) didn’t have the time to call us.

Not only do I get great information that I can empathize with from these customers, but recently I’ve started finding out how effective our marketing is – “Do you mind me asking where you heard about A Story Before Bed?” and turning each support call into a gentle sales call – “Did you know about our subscription offer? It could save you a lot of money.” I realize these things may be obvious to many of you reading this post, but even if I understood them intellectually, I didn’t *really* understand them, at an emotional level. It’s still early, but it looks like answering calls may not only not be a drag on the bottom line, but a boost.

And while the frequency of calls is on the rise as our site gets more popular, for now, handling the calls isn’t just ‘not a problem’ it’s something I look forward to. It makes me understand why Craig’s (a.k.a. Craigslist Craig) main job is customer support. From my perspective, there’s no better way to understand what my customers are thinking. Analytics can tell me what they’re doing, but not why. When the calls are frequent enough to impact my other responsibilities, I honestly wonder which of my tasks I’ll delegate. More and more I think that someone else might be flying to New York to sign up new publishers, and I’ll stay focused on answering calls and e-mails.

A Story Before Bed. This is Hillel. How may I help you? :)

28 Responses to How I almost ignored our single best source for customer feedback.

  1. Hillel, at Sampa we had an 800 number that went to a voice-mail. We had 100,000+ registered users and we would get a handful of calls a week. Paul (CEO) would return most of the calls himself, going to great lengths to figure out bugs and issues. It wasn’t time consuming, nor a pain.

    Actually, the worst part was the number of companies calling us to try to sell something. Probably half the calls were like that, not from customers.

  2. Marc Hedlund says:

    Dude, I coulda told you that. :) Here’s a BusinessWeek article about the number my co-founder manned for a number of years. It was awesome:

    http://www.businessweek.com/smallbiz/content/feb2008/sb20080211_170830.htm

    Glad it’s working for you!

  3. Hillel says:

    I’d seen the articles too… But as you guys know… people say/write a lot of different things. There’s reading it, and there’s doing it.

    Also, I’m not that sharp. :)

  4. Hey Hillel, I found this post through Hacker News and was happily surprised to find myself back on your blog – great chatting with you at the Seattle 2.0 awards, as always. If we can ever help you with hosting a tol free numbers, let me know — it can be really cheap, just $2/month to hold onto the number. Wouldn’t normally hock my wares on a friends blog, but agree strongly that this little hack would help a lot of businesses to be more trusted by their customers, even if those customers rarely call.

    You can do some smart stuff with call screening too (like we do for the Twilio company phone) to avoid all those solicitation calls.

  5. Healy Jones says:

    We’ve got an 800 number (ok, an 888 number) on our site right at the top (officedrop.com). We get a number of calls during the day, but most of them turn out to be sales calls – basically people who are thinking about signing up and who have a simple question or two. It’s our best converting sales channel.

    It’s also been really helpful with our new product development pipeline. We can ask people what they are using the product for, etc. There are a number of customers with whom we’ve developed a good enough relationship that we can call them and ask them opinions on new features.

    I say keep answering the phone!

  6. Pingback: How I almost ignored our single best source for customer feedback. » News, Hacker, View, Comments » App Developer Tyler Johnson Blog - tjoozey.com

  7. Hi Hillel, Great Article!
    We do the same thing at Olark, one of our founders man’s the 1-800 number, and we all take turns manning the chat box on our website. We use all those ‘support’ and ‘presales’ conversations to help learn more about what our customers are looking for (and also to reinforce our customer focused culture). Have you thought about using live-chat as a way of augmenting your phone call method? We’ve found that our team is usually already on an IM program, and chat is a lot less interruptive than a phone call. (albeit not quite as deep of an interaction).

    Cheers,
    Ben
    olark.com

  8. Tom says:

    Great post. We have a similar setup at Wishpot, and I’ve heard our CEO literally help walk people through the checkout system at target.com and other retailers, simply because some users thought we (as a universal wishlist) also handle the full transaction. He’s even helped people find products in their color/size that they couldn’t find on our site. It doesn’t happen often, but it leaves a good impression.

  9. Ryan A says:

    This is a great post. I think the idea you have presented here is a brilliant differentiator for your business. I can see it’d be more effective for services designed for non-tech users. I wonder if it’d work for tech businesses too?

    Things to think about (and try) no doubt!

  10. What a great post! I’m a bit of a geek about customer service, so it’s great to hear this story. It actually reminds me a bit of something Gary Vaynerchuk said at SXSW this year. He said that *everyone* was going to be in customer service soon, regardless of their position. He also said that he hasn’t figured out how to scale caring, which is what I believe you need if you want to provide great customer service with a growing business. Lastly, he described what he’s calling “The Thank You Economy” which he’s currently writing a book about.

    Ultimately, it’s about giving your customers as great an experience as possible when they interact with your brand. This is an investment to me because each experience that makes a customer happy can become a marketing opportunity that brings you additional sales.

    The personal touch you’re giving your customers is great. Keep up the good work!

  11. MIchelle says:

    Awesome post, Hillel. I handle most of our customer service emails and calls too. I find it’s a great way to connect with readers.
    m

  12. Great post, Hillel! We do this at Leanpub too: I stick my cell phone number in the footer of our site that logged-in authors use, and I just ask people to only call between 9 AM and 9 PM Pacific. As a founder, I find it an extremely useful thing to do… I’ve gotten a handful of calls (all while I was awake!), and every time I’ve learned something new to improve about our product…

    Cheers,
    Peter

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  15. Thanks for this post – very insightful. Companies are so quick to view phone support as a cost center, but as you pointed out, it offers tremendous value.

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  17. As you point out, the important fact here is that support doesn’t work as well when it’s this separate entity from the other parts of the business. The kind of support you are doing is really just another part of your product development – it’s the listening part, the user-testing part; or to put it another way – it’s just another part of the UI.

    You write about it elegantly. Cheers.

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  25. Megan Radich says:

    Wonderful read! I recently helped out the customer support section of the company I work for and it was a big eye-opener! The knowledge & insight you gain about what’s working and what’s not from the people who are actually using your product/site everyday is invaluable.

    I really listen now when someone from support comes to me with suggestions.

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  27. Whenever I buy something online I never solely use the shopping cart. I always call first or send them an email. Once I know the business is legitimate I’m happy to buy.

    I am also a web designer so I imagine people that spend less time on the net might do something similar.

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