What comes to mind when you think of great customer service? 24/7 coverage? Live chat with instant response times? A dedicated phone number you can call where you're always guaranteed that someone will pick up?
Those all sound nice in theory, but they're not really related to a great customer service experience.
High availability is an anti-pattern
Think about the worst support experiences you've had. You're probably thinking about your bank, cell phone company, or cable provider. You know what? All of them have 24/7 phone support. And you still hate them.
This seems contradictory. Why would companies with the worst support also be the ones with the highest availability? These two seemingly contradictory things are actually one and the same: They view support as an assembly line. If customer service reps are treated like replaceable minimum-wage drones, it's relatively easy to provide 24/7 support. Just open up another call center on the other side of the world, and viola.
The problem is that good customer service is about more than just picking up the phone when it rings. The reason the phone rings is because the customer on the other end has a problem they need help with. If the person who answers the phone can't help them, there's really no point in picking up the phone at all.
Good customer service teams are empowered to solve problems
So if the classic "customer service as an assembly line" approach doesn't work, what does? The answer is both simple, and extremely difficult to do well: You have to empower your support reps. That means:
- They need to be trained to understand the product inside and out. Most customer service requests are just simple questions. If the rep can't answer the question, the customer's problem won't be solved. At Less Annoying CRM, it normally takes us about three months to fully train a new hire support rep.
- They need tools and permission to take action on their own. If a customer needs something to be done for them (e.g. updating their account, issuing a refund, etc.), the rep they're talking with should be able to make that happen on the spot. This normally involves building a lot of internal tools and training the reps on how to use them. At Less Annoying CRM, we have an extensive suite of tools for the support team, and we regularly add new tools so that the reps can handle even more issues on their own.
- They need to be able to escalate issues easily. A support rep should be able to resolve 99% of issues themselves, but on the rare occasion that they can't, they need direct access to someone who can. At Less Annoying CRM, we always have a developer on "bug fix duty" so if a support rep has a question they can't figure out or needs a bug fixed for a customer, they don't have to jump through any hoops to make it happen. Reps also have direct access to everyone at the company, including me, if there's an issue that the person on bug fix duty can't fix.
- They need to be a real part of the team. At most companies, things are changing all the time. The product is being improved, policies are changing, marketing launches new campaigns that attract new types of customers, etc. Support reps need to understand all of this change, and that means deeply involving them in the inner workings of the business.
Simple but difficult
I said above that the way to offer good customer service is both simple and difficult. It's simple because it's easy to explain: Empower your reps. That's it.
It's difficult because empowering your reps requires a lot of hard work. In order to build a strong service culture, you need to hire great people, pay them well, make sure they're treated like peers by the rest of the team, involve them in decision-making at the company, etc.
Basically, instead of treating support reps like minimum-wage drones, you need to treat them like well-paid knowledge workers.
Why this conflicts with high availability
Here's the thing about well-paid knowledge workers: They don't particularly like working nights and weekends. I mean, no one likes working nights and weekends, but if someone is well-paid, they have significantly more mobility. They know that the job market is hot right now, and if you don't respect their work/life balance, they can just go work somewhere else.
This is why I think that it's fundamentally difficult to have 24/7 coverage, instant live chat, etc. while also having great customer service. You can either hire great people and empower them to help customers, or you can try to build an assembly line, but it's difficult to do both.
There may be exceptions, but I think most of the time, customers prefer quality over quantity. So if you really want to provide the absolute best experience to your customers, stop worrying about high availability, and start empowering your reps to succeed...during normal business hours.
The good news
The good news is that offering great customer service is simple. I've heard so many founders worry that they don't have the resources to have good customer service because they think they need live chat and always-on phone support, complex phone trees, etc. You absolutely don't need that.
As a matter of fact, in the early days of a business, you're almost guaranteed to offer better support than any larger company possibly could. Remember, good support is all about being empowered, and who is more empowered than the founder? If you just set reasonable expectations with the customer about when they'll hear back from you, and put in the time to solve their problems when you are on support, you'll blow the competition out of the water.
What the haters might say
Hater: You can hire good people in other time zones. Just because you pay people well doesn't mean you can't have 24/7 coverage.
My response: If you're already fully remote+asynchronous or so big that you have multiple offices around the world, then yes, I agree. But one of the common pitfalls with customer service is that the reps are treated like outsiders relative to the rest of the company. Employing customer service teams that don't overlap business hours with the rest of the team isn't a recipe for success. This goes doubly if the rest of the team works together in-person.
Hater: You could have tier 1 support be the 24/7 assembly line model, and have them escalate to tier 2 support who is more empowered. That gives you the best of both worlds.
My response: It's not clear to me that this really accomplishes anything. The customer calls support, someone who can't help them picks up and says they'll pass the message on to the real support team in the morning. Is this really any different than just having the customer leave a voicemail?
Hater: Sometimes 24/7 support actually is important.
My response: Sure, if you run a hotel where people regularly check in and out during all hours of the day, you probably need someone working the front desk 24/7. There are businesses where high availability is a core part of the offering. But I think most small businesses and startups should just stick to great support during their core hours.