The Practical Guide To Building A Small Business Customer Support Organization – Part 1

customer-service.0822.12In 1989, I co-founded VocalTec and soon, we were a company of 3-4 people doing everything from coding to customer support. Years later in 2005, I co-founded Bitwine (www.Bitwine.com), an e-commerce website for human intellect. More recently in 2007, I became the first hired employee at www.Phone.com and jumped into customer support. Although I still do this from time to time with great pride, I feel as if I was an integral part of the process of what has become the award winning phone.com support organization. In short, this is my third time through the customer support formation process and wanted to share some thoughts with you.

A mature support organization is complicated and expensive with the need for documented procedures and tools. However, that complexity is not created in a day. There are many ways to start an effective and simple support team with minimal cost.

This blog will provide a few guidelines that can help the small business jump-start a support organization that evolves with the company. It does not need to be complicated.

1) Define Your Support Goals – What is your customer support philosophy? Here are some examples.

  • Zappos (“Make Every Customer Happy”)
  • Phone.com (striving to “Be Awesome”)
  • Google (Free product. Enough said!)

To better understand the goal of Phone.com to “Be Awesome,” here is how Jenny & Jeremy, the Phone.com Customer Support leaders, define it:

“Awesome embodies much more than just happiness – it embodies a genuine, honest, friendly and real approach to customer service. We want our customers to feel empowered and appreciated with our service. We want our CSRs (Customer Support Representatives) to have every resource available to resolve problems while being able to let their unique qualities shine. We’ll do whatever it takes to help the customer – even if it means spending extra time / money / resources to do so.”

Having clearly articulated goals is important. It defines the effort and leads to the budget needed for customer support efforts.

2) Define Your Support Technical Parameters – Based on the type of service you provide and even the support your competition provides, you will need to define your support parameters. This will help determine the tools to be used and the people required. Here are some parameters for technical customer support:

  • Response time (1 Minute or 3 days? Weekdays only or 24×7?)
  • Modalities (Web, E-mail, Phone?)
  • Synchronous (Phone, Chat, Video?)
  • Asynchronous (E-mail and Voice mail?)
  • Sourcing (In-house, Outsourced, Offshore?)

Customers appreciate it when they can communicate with support agents in the best way for them, so an important consideration might be offering E-mail, Phone (Toll Free), Chat, Twitter, Facebook, and even text (SMS).

3) Select Your Ticket System – A ticket system will help you record your communication with the customer and retain the thread. It will help you know when a problem was resolved or it can remind you to get back to a customer who might be waiting for an answer.

There are many ticket systems. Some are expensive and some are free. Here are few examples.

  • Gmail (Free – keeps your communication thread in one place)
  • Zoho (Very low cost)
  • Kayako (Very cost effective with both hosted and on-site versions)
  • Saleseforce (Very Expensive)

4) Build Back-end Agent Tools – An agent is as good as the tools at their disposal. In the same way that a blind person has a hard time navigating without a cane, an agent with no tools is just as blind. At a minimum, the agent tools must provide the ability to perform the following:

  • Refunds
  • Account Cancelations
  • Check Log files
  • Password Recovery
  • Password Reset
  • Account Search
  • Package tracking
  • Customer Authentication (Is the caller really who he says he is?)

5) Best Practices – Best practices and documented procedures are required for agents to follow and for training of new agents. Empower your agents to help by providing guidelines and safeguards. For instance, Zappos gives each agent $100/day to make customers happy. Here are some other ideas:

  • Enable a few trusted agents to open free accounts (not to all)
  • Permit a few agents to offer predetermined discounts
  • Let agents provide refunds within limits:
    • Not every agent can make a refund.
    • A refund cannot be larger than what the customer originally paid.
    • A refund must be done to the same credit card originally used.

Stay tuned for part two and five more guidelines for building your customer support organization.