3 strategic ways to reduce the number of support calls

The cost of providing support to users can be huge, so what can be done to reduce the number and duration of support calls? Here are three strategies to consider.

1.Pre-empt the calls

In same way that Japanese car companies improved the quality of their products to reduce the after-sales costs, you can take steps, from the start, that can reduce the amount of post-sale difficulties.

  • Improve the usability of a product

Can you design out the bugs and problems where people get stuck?

Can you make the product intuitive to use?

Consider whether, and how, you could provide training to users – this could be videos on YouTube, animated software tutorials, even simple paper guides. You won’t be able to design away every call, particularly if users are dealing with unfamiliar concepts, but you can go far.

  • Provide effective user assistance

There is still a lack of understanding of the effect good user assistance (delivered as online Help, user guides, quick reference cards, animated tutorials or videos) can have on the amount of support calls received.

With more and more of this content going onto the Web, it’s now possible to measure the number of people using this information, and the figures can be enormous. To help you assess the impact, you can use our online support call cost reduction calculator.

  • Encourage users to play and experiment with the product

Through playing and experimenting with a product, users are often able to teach themselves how to use particular features or discover new capabilities. Users need to be confident this is low risk, and be able to set aside some time to do this. One way to encourage this is by communicating with users: providing case studies or “tips and tricks” in newsletters.

2. Provide better, faster ways to assist users

In general, people will follow the line of least resistance. If they can find the solution to their problem on the Web, then they are likely to use that route.

So look for ways in which support can be “self-service”.

  • Many people will look for answers on the Web, so you need to make user assistance available and findable on the Web. It needs to be clear and unambiguous, and organised in an logical way. Technical Authors are skilled at doing this for you.
  • Look for ways to embed the support information into the product. For software, this can embedded help – tips next to a field, for example. For hardware, this could be scannable barcodes (QR or vizi tags), sticky labels or tags.
  • Establish peer group support, where users support each other. People love to share and be heard. The downside is that the information may be incorrect, unclear, incomplete or critical, so you need to moderate these types of areas.

Of course, habits die slowly and some problems can only be fixed over the phone, however there are ways to provide better, faster user assistance. Looking at the number of visitors to The Carphone Warehouse’s YouTube channel, which provides advice on topics such as unboxing a mobile phone, it shows there’s a huge desire for such information.

3. Reduce the duration of each support call, and the need for users to call again

The duration of each support call can be achieved by making it faster for staff to solve the problem or by guiding users quickly to alternative places where their problem can be solved.

Large organisations may be using support software, such as Kana, to guide staff through problem solving decision trees. Other organisations can develop knowledge bases, to enable staff to find the answers quickly and efficiently. These can be populated by internal staff or, again, by technical authors.

Often, it’s the same support questions that appear time and again. In this situation, Twitter and email can help by guiding users to places where their problem can be solved. Again, Technical Authors can help to create this content.

In this situation, it’s important users don’t feel they are being “fobbed off”. Look for ways to give users something extra, so there’s a sense of reward.

Alternatively, don’t reduce the number of support calls

Often, a support call interaction can lead even the most irate client turning into someone who will recommend your product to others. Even if you can’t solve their problem, you listened, tried to help them and you cared.

Forrester Research talks about the Return on Interaction – that a support call can lead to an “upsell opportunity” or a word of mouth recommendation.

Summary

The important thing to do is measure and learn, and then adapt.  The relationship between usability, user assistance and support are becoming more measurable.

Remember, not all users are the same, so you need to offer more than one approach.

3 ways for the Support department to get the monkey off its back

Q. What’s the biggest gripe in Support?

A. Getting the unnecessary calls off their backs, so they can find the time needed to tackle the really important problems. Really, they are looking for a way to be pestered less.

So what are the three key ways to relieve this headache?

1. Enable users to serve themselves.

If you are getting loads of traffic via your help desks, it is just proving the point that the existing (or non-existent) manual is not clear? (BTW Cherryleaf can help you provide documentation that works.)

2. Eliminate the problem at source.

You need to look at the reasons why people get stuck. It’s likely to be due to poor design, poor instructions or poor training.

3. Understand your users, in all their different forms.

Recognise there is no single “typical” user. Instead, identify the types of  ”personas” that use your product, and make sure the customer experience makes sense to them.

Failing that, there’s always the option used in The IT Crowd:

Any other factors? We’d welcome your thoughts and opinions.

How to launch a new business service from scratch

This post is from Cherryleaf guest blogger, Derek Bishop.

Designing and building a new service always comes with risks, especially in the recession. But with more entrepreneurs and small businesses emerging, many of which providing friendly efficient customer service (due to the size of the business and amount of responsibilities), large organisations are now being forced to step up to this new competition. Some are even feeling the need to launch a whole new service in attempt to win back customers! But sometimes the processes are underestimated and messages misleading, resulting in damage to the existing customer experience. In this article, I shall be providing tips on how to build your new service from a blank piece of paper.

Launching a new proposition/service

Many organisations have built a business case to launch a new proposition or service to the marketplace and statements included in the business case will be: “Service will be our differentiator”, we will be “easy to do business with”, “service will be key” and/or “strong service proposition”.

However, what lies beneath these aspirational statements can often be very flaky indeed. If the understanding of these statements is poor, then the service which is designed and built is guaranteed to fall short of expectations whether that be management, customer, or both. The company then puts itself at huge risk from reputational damage – because, if you launch with statements about the proposition which then falls short in the customer’s eyes, you will fail to acquire new customers or quickly lose those customers that you do acquire!

Understanding customer expectations

In gaining proposition clarity, it is critical to understand the customer expectations and then define the customer journey which will support the brand and marketing proposition.

Only through this process can you be sure of translating statements into a solid set of design principles, which can be used to then progress to the next stage. Embed them into the processes, the organisation design and the training etc. This way, the marketing proposition is being carefully embedded into the actual design and build of the service delivery – whether that is online, telephone based, email or face to face.

The ultimate result is that your actual service delivery matches the proposition you go to market with. Through this process you must ensure that there is an alignment of expectations between the customer, the brand, the proposition, management expectations and actual service delivered by staff. If there are mismatches these will become very evident quickly and will cause challenges.

Use the customer journeys to help communicate the proposition to the various stakeholder groups – customers, management, and staff. As you get closer to the launch, pressures will emerge around what can be delivered in the timescales and invariably some things may come under challenges to be ‘de-scoped’ from initial launch. As these challenges arise the impact of the de-scoping should be assessed against the customer journeys, as this will clearly identify if there will be an impact on the proposition. Failure to assess and de-scope against the customer journeys means you run the risk of launching a service that doesn’t match the proposition you’ve set about promoting to the marketplace.

Developing and implementing the complete system build

Often organisations will also focus on developing and implementing the complete system build before go-live, which to me is fraught with risks – in appropriate design, poor service, and increase costs.

Rather than building a complete system solution to support your launch, implement it with the core system needs, and support these with controlled manual processes. No matter how much planning you do, when you launch customers will behave in ways that you hadn’t predicted so having manual processes allows you to adapt the process in response to customer experience and hence be ‘nimble’ with your service delivery.

Once the processes have been refined, then look for ways in which automation/systems solutions would enable better efficiency. Short term, it may cost slightly extra in staff costs, but the system build and implementation costs will be lower as you will avoid unnecessary ‘Change Requests’ which will both be costly and time consuming to implement.

Ensure you have good controls and governance in place, particularly if you have lots of manual processes and you will be changing them. This ensures that as you change, adapt and grow you remain in complete control of your operation. In these challenging times, it is critical that management are in complete control of what is happening, even in an environment of rapid change – delivering changes in a controlled manner will be much more effective and will deliver better results.

Management information

Ensure you define and build the appropriate Management Information reporting, which will enable you to make the decisions which you need to on a daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly basis.

It’s surprising how many times insufficient or inaccurate management information exists. There has been much media attention in recent times about ‘poor’ decisions taken by top executives within large corporations, but is it solely their fault? The purpose of Management Information is to guide decision making and if the information is inaccurate or incomplete, then it is highly likely that the final decisions made on this information will also be flawed. Some responsibility therefore does need to be taken by those who produce the Management Information reports in the first place and they must ensure that reports are able to deliver a true and concise picture of reality.

The current economic climate drives the need for even sharper Management Information to enable faster and better decision making.

Conclusion

As much as there will be resistance to this, you must ensure that you have contingency in your resources to enable you to respond to unexpected challenges and demands. Whilst you may have forecast and completed scenario plans on how many staff you need, it is highly likely what’s actually needed in practice will be slightly different – whether that be driven through unexpected customer demand, processes taking longer than expected, unstable systems.

Develop some ‘what if’ scenarios of the range of possible things that could happen when you launch. Having identified possible scenarios, develop some contingency plans for each scenario so that if/when one of (or a combination of) the scenarios arises, at least you have already planned your options and can get into action quicker.

In contingency planning before hand, proper consideration can be given to the customer experience without the heat of the problem hitting you here and now – this way you are more likely to sustain your customer experience.

Why listening to your customers is so vital

This post is from Cherryleaf guest blogger, Derek Bishop.

If ever there was a time to listen intensely to your customers, now would be that time. It has never been more important to really understand what the customer pressures, needs, wants and expectations are.

It is important to truly understand what’s driving the reason for their actions e.g. what is the real reason they are contacting you with queries, rather than just answering the queries. Understanding the customers emotional status and understanding how you can not only provide a good service but one that creates an emotional connection with their personal circumstances, is critical, so consider engaging a group of your customers in helping you shape what you do to meet and exceed customer expectations in these challenges circumstances.

Keep your customers informed

Depending on what sector you provide services in, the frequency of changing circumstances will vary. For example, if you provide products and services in the Financial Services marketplace, circumstances will be changing on a daily, or even hourly basis. This news being readily available to customers through a multitude of media means that customers will be responding quickly to those changing situations.

It is critical that customer facing teams are kept extremely up to date with what’s happening, how it may impact on customers and how to answer very specific questions. Remember, customers these days have a huge amount of information available to them from a variety of sources, which means the questions they will ask you are likely to be more in depth, and very specific to themselves. Keeping your front line staff in a position where they can confidently answer questions from concerning customers will naturally create a greater feeling of confidence for the customer, helping retention.

It is extremely important to pro-actively communicate with customers and help them through this traumatic time. Web sites will be receiving higher hits, and the refresh of the information should be increased in line with what customers are likely to expect from you. If they can’t find the information on the Web site, they will either make choices without the information or find out through different methods – all of which could have potentially a negative impact on your business.

Staff behaviour impacts the customer experience

Consider your customer facing staff – they are going through exactly the same pressures and challenges in the current climate and how they are feel, plus their views, will have a direct bearing on how they interact with customers. It is hugely important to engage with your staff and communicate actively with them. If your staff are extremely well informed, when they are interacting with your customers this will display confidence to the customers. Sadly, often communication drops at times like this, as Leaders are so busy working out what needs to be done, unfortunately communication is not seen as high enough in the priority list.

The risk of creating an unplanned negative affect on the customer experience is significantly higher in pressure periods like now – Leaders should ensure they are actively engaging and supporting their staff.

A Question of Value

With customers coming under financial strain, price will become an increasingly important factor, but service will still play a huge role. Organisations need to ensure they are delivering good value, and good customer service is a critical component in that.

Even with such price sensitivity, higher levels of customer service can make a huge difference to customers, with them potentially paying a slightly higher price just to have the confidence that they will be looked after that much better by you. Switching service providers just to save a small amount of money may be considered not worth it by many customers, as they will be moving from current good trusted service delivery to the unknown of a new provider, all to save a small amount of money.

Connecting the online and offline customer experience

This post is from Cherryleaf guest blogger, Derek Bishop. One of the most common issues affecting organisations and the ability to maximise the profitability of contact centres is the disconnect between the online and offline experience.

Derek argues that a well constructed online and offline approach will ensure that customers are receiving the same levels of service, irrespective of how they ‘touch’ the organisation, and they will receive the same brand and proposition messages and as a result, customers will be more likely to buy from them and existing customers will be less likely to switch to competitors.

In an increasingly Web-enabled world, customers are displaying an increased desire for completing sales and service over the Web – as it provides greater flexibility and choice and is often the quickest way to achieving the desired result. In order to remain competitive, most organisations now offer some form of Web-based interface, with the level and complexity of the online solution dependent on the type of product or service on offer.

Organisations are embracing this shift by adding more and more content to the Web, which is fuelling the customer’s thirst for knowledge.

However, what they are missing is that this increase in knowledge is leading to an increase in questions of a more complex nature. As a result, there is a requirement for good offline support to be available for where the online FAQ’s do not provide the customers with sufficient information. Equally, if the right information is displayed online, but is too difficult for customers to find the necessary answers, they will revert back to traditional offline support.

In my experience, I often find that whilst the online proposition is well thought through, design and implemented effectively, similar attention is not given to the offline experience! It is critical that offline support should match the online experience – thereby providing a consistent and joined up end-to-end customer experience which matches the brand and proposition.

This is not always as easy to do, as perspectives often tend to be focused on specific elements of the service proposition, but in order to deliver a consistent and coherent message to the customer, organisations must take a step away from the business and map the end-to-end customer journey, taking time to consider all the ‘what if’ scenarios. Customers who need to contact the contact centre (e.g. by phone or email), and are then let down by the poor quality responses delivered by the offline support, are more likely to take their business elsewhere.

Contact centres often end up costing the business and failing to have the impact on the bottom line that they should be for one or more of the following reasons:

Poor email responses

Poorly responding to email enquiries from customers is a common problem for many organisations and this has been re-inforced by recent research from eService provider Transversal (www.transversal.com). Transversal’s study evaluated 100 leading UK companies in the banking, telecoms, insurance, travel, consumer electronics, grocery retail, fashion retail, CD/DVD retail, consumer electronics retail and utilities sectors for their ability to answer simple routine questions, via email, their Web site and by phone.

Transversal revealed that only 46% of the routine queries emailed to the organisations were answered adequately, and the average time to respond was almost 2 days – and more shockingly 28% didn’t reply at all! So with such a slow (or completely lacking response) it makes it very easy for customers to start looking elsewhere as their experience makes it difficult for them to do business with the organisation, and perhaps leaves them feeling the organisation isn’t interested in their custom or values it highly enough.

Understanding that customers are different

In high volume businesses, organisations have often driven for efficiency, in order to keep operating costs low, by standardising processes and service delivery models. A common assumption made by organisations in this situation, is that customers all want the same thing and can therefore all be serviced the same way.

Customers have different needs, wants and expectations,  so it is fraught with danger to assume that all customers will be happy to interact with an organisation in the same way. Offering a joined up multi channel approach is vitally important, unless of course your proposition is quite clearly positioned as self-service online and you manage expectations around offline support service (as do some of the low cost airlines, for example).

Connecting online and offline promotions

Another common problem is that staff in the contact centre are not aware of promotions that are available online to customers. If a customer contacts the contact centre about a particular online promotion and the staff have no knowledge of the offer and are therefore unable to help the customer make the purchase, this creates a very disjointed experience and increases the chances of the customer taking their business elsewhere.

Looking back at the Transversal survey results, 48% of the email responses, which were provided, actually pushed customers back to the Web site. It is highly unlikely that 100% of those customers will do this, and so many will end up taking their business to other suppliers.

Good communication links between the various parts of the organisation is essential for ensuring the proposition is embedded throughout the customer touchpoints, and that promotions are fully understood, whilst also using the opportunity of offline interaction with the customer to gain insight to help future marketing/proposition development.

Utilising customer insight

Many organisations tend to miss the fact that customers phoning or emailing the contact centre is a prime opportunity to gain further insight into customers experiences and how the organisation may be able to improve for future growth. For example, if customers are struggling to find answers online and are regularly contacting the contact centre to find the answers, use the opportunity to understand more about how the customer struggled online and how it could be made easier in the future. Use this information to improve your online experience and hence improve future profitability by achieving the sale without the need for assistance from the offline Contact Centre. Often these practical feedback loops do not exist or where there do, are not actively used to their full potential.

You also gain greater insight to the customers themselves – use the contact as a subtle market research opportunity by building in some key questions into the dialogue which don’t detract from the main question but that will give further information to allow you to extend the proposition, or provide more offers to customers in the future.

Summary

A well joined up, well thought through end to end customer experience – both online and offline, will add significant value in re-inforcing the organisations proposition and ensuring that poor customer service is not one of the reasons for customers switching to the competition.

Cherryleaf welcomes our guest blogger, Derek Bishop

We’re pleased to welcome a guest blogger to Cherryleaf’s blog: Derek Bishop. Derek is CEO of Abeo Consulting, a consultancy that specialises in customer satisfaction: helping organisations significantly improve customer service and increase customer loyalty.

Derek will be talking about his experiences and thoughts on customer satisfaction.

“Digital Natives” and the end of traditional hotline support

Are we seeing a new generation growing up who are shying away from telephone-based support in favour of text-based support?

This is one conclusion we can draw from a New York Times article last week on teenagers (whom it called “Digital Natives”) and technology. It reported on research from the Pew Research Center that indicated:

Children used to actually talk to their friends. Those hours spent on the family princess phone or hanging out with pals in the neighborhood after school vanished long ago. But now, even chatting on cellphones or via e-mail (through which you can at least converse in paragraphs) is passé.

The traditional model of support has clearly changed. In the 1990s, people used to talk of the four levels of support:

  1. The 50 foot guru  - You ask the person within 50 foot of your desk who is more knowledgeable than you.
  2. The 200 foot guru - If the 50 foot guru can’t help you, you leave your desk and go and ask the most knowledgeable person who is within a 200 feet range of you.
  3. Hotline Support  - You phone someone who is an expert. Typically, this is the Support Desk.
  4. The manual/Help file –  If you cannot get through to an expert on the phone who can answer your question, you consult the manual.

Essentially, people followed the easiest path to solve their problem.

Arguably, we’re now seeing a generation growing up, primarily those under 27, who behave differently. For them, the four levels of support are:

  1. Automated Search – You search for the answer on the Web.
  2. Human Search – You ask friends and acquaintances by text, Twitter, email or Instant Messaging.
  3. Hotline Support - You phone someone who is an expert. Typically, this is the Support Desk.
  4. The 50 foot guru -  You ask the person within 50 foot of your desk who is more knowledgeable than you.

So what’s happened to the manual – where does that fit in?

In many cases, the manual is now a collection of Web pages. It’s moved up to the top of list, although many may not recognise it as a manual. It might not have an index, page numbers or a table of contents, but it serves the same function.

If  companies want to sell to “Generation Y” , they will need to ensure the ways they assist their users reflect this preference for text-based content. This means, they’ll need to:

  1. Understand how their customer base wants to receive support information.
  2. Package and deliver the information through a number of different channels.
  3. Use people who are good at writing to write text-based information.
  4. Have an efficient method for managing and publishing this content.
  5. Be able to provide support information in context of the customers particular situation.

So who has these types of skills? With the exception of point 5, it’s user experience experts and technical writers.  Of course, if you don’t have people with those types of skills within your organisation then, as an alternative, you could look at technical communications specialists such as Cherryleaf.

Reducing IT support call times

At the Documentation Managers peer group meeting we hosted earlier this week, one manager commented his organisation was aiming to increase the average time for each support call. This was because it believed it could eliminate all the short duration calls – through redesigning the software and better user documentation. What would be left would be the more complex problems that take longer to solve.

Having worked on a support line when I left college, I can appreciate the benefits of this approach. There’s nothing worse than spending your time repeating the same solution over and over again. So a consequence may be that they’ll also see a reduction in support staff turnover.

Allied to this approach may also be the adoption of micro-blogging communication channels. Yesterday, Yammer announced it will be launching its Communities feature on 1st March. This means organisations will be able to create their own private network channel to communicate with its customers and partners.