It’s our phone number. Amazing what a powerful statement it can be. As a small online business a published phone number seems to say, “yes there are real people working here and we’d love to talk to you.” Yet it is a scary thing for some companies to say. Phone calls are less efficient, less manageable and ultimately less scalable than e-mail systems. But they are worth it.

Sunir Shah at Freshbooks (whose online billing/invoicing software we use and love) wrote last week about answering the phone for customer service. Many great points about the importance of being available to your customer, however it is they are trying to connect with you.

For those resource strapped businesses debating offering phone support, I have a secret to tell you; not that many people call in for product support. The overwhelming majority of phone calls we get on the BatchBlue line are from people considering our product. They need some quick answers on product features and just want the security of knowing there is a support system there if they ever need it.

Customer service has always been the top priority for us here at BatchBlue. While not a standard practice for new, start-up online businesses, we set up our customer service line day one. Actually before day one – we launched it with the beta launch of our product. Our feeling is, if you are serious about customer service, you can not hide from a customer in need. If offering a service to our customers is going to create a burden for our business, then we better figure out how to solve it early on and make sure all of our offerings grow with the business.

And to help you take the plunge, I thought I would offer some suggestions on implementing a phone support system:

  1. Get a toll-free number and make it public. If you are going to offer phone service, don’t make it hard to find and expensive. Show your customers you really mean it.
  2. Use an online voicemail service (we use GotVMail.com) to easily route, re-route and electronically store all incoming calls and messages.
  3. If e-mail support is more efficient, tell people. We explain on the web site and in our phone messaging that urgent support issues should go to our support e-mail address.
  4. If support calls do come in on the phone line, gather as much information as possible and send it through the normal support channels (if you try to manage calls in a separate system than e-mails you will just double the work and the chance of things getting missed).
  5. Enjoy the call. If you dread taking a phone call, it will not be a fun experience. If you enjoy it, so will your caller.
  6. Provide as much self-help options as possible on your site to support your product. FAQs, online tutorials, screencasts, forums, product blogs can all be used to support the product.
  7. If you are getting a number of calls/e-mails all asking the same question, consider offering a special service around that topic. Calls and e-mails about importing data and setting up SuperTags prompted us to set up the On Boarding program.
  8. Use a tool to track all of the different modes of conversation – phone, e-mail, forum posts, blog comments, third party support managers,etc. We prefer BatchBook, of course.
  9. If you want support requests handled in e-mail or on your forums, then respond quickly to the e-mails and posts. No need for folks to come looking for you somewhere else.
  10. Make a sound product, listen to what users need and keep improving it. If folks can feel the maturation of your product and know it is addressing their needs, they won’t feel the need to call and complain.
  11. Spread the customer service love. Our entire company spends time in the Customer Service queue handling e-mails, calls, etc.
  12. Make sure customer service can grow. Start all new staff with a stint in customer service queue. Not as a hazing ritual, but because that is a great way to learn the product quickly and it will help you cover customer service responsibilities as the company grows.
  13. Use calls as a chance to do some market research. We’ve gotten invaluable information on what features people are looking for, what information they could/could not easily find on our website, and just what they think of the product.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few things, so please add to the list with comments below. Let’s make sure customers know that working with an online business does not mean they get second class treatment.