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?