The “Secret” Customer Service Weapon for Small Technology Companies

customer service telephone communicationsTechnology companies are, unfortunately, almost as well known for having poor customer service as they are for their actual products.   Why is that?

Small business expert Anita Campbell cited poor customer service for web apps as one of three key issues that needs to be overcome before cloud apps can become ubiquitous in small businesses.   Shame on us web software companies for allowing an easy-to-fix item like this onto the list!

This truth stings quite sharply, for a couple of reasons:

1.           It’s true

2.           Most cloud app companies are small companies (not large ones)

Crappy customer service is almost expected from large companies – in software, and beyond.   But it should NOT be an acceptable business practice for us smaller software companies.   The future of the software industry is in the cloud – and in the many innovative small companies that are producing productivity enhancing web apps for small business.   So we need to get the customer service issue figured out – and soon!

The Most Common Customer Service Complaint

What’s the worst feeling a customer can have?   How about when you can’t get a hold of someone to help you.

You know the feeling – and you probably dread it.   Remember the last time your plane got delayed, and you couldn’t get a hold of anyone from the airline to inform you about your alternate travel plans?   Or how about the last time you called your cell phone company, and you were stuck in a maze of 1-800 numbers, all answered by people without a clue or even an inclination to help you?

Our Secret Customer Service Weapon: The Telephone

From a customer service perspective, the offer of free email AND phone support is very comforting for many of our customers.   It assures them that they’ll always be able to get a hold of someone, because they can pick up the phone and give us a ring.

And ironically – between you and me – they rarely take us up on the phone offer.   We get only one phone call for about every 20 email inquiries.   So the incremental effort required from us to accept phone calls is actually minimal.

Most importantly, we’re able to take care of that one person out of twenty who really wants to talk to a live person.

And Sometimes We Even Call Them

Sometime we will even call somebody back directly after receiving an email.   We’ve found this to be a very good practice in the following situations:

1. When we are unsure of what they are describing. It’s easier to pick up the phone and talk live, than to exchange emails back and forth about the issue they are experiencing.   It’s faster, and also less frustrating for both us, and them.

2. When they are unhappy about something. If you have an unhappy customer, I’d highly recommend picking up the phone and talking with them.     The anonymity of electronic communication can sometimes make monsters out of normally nice people – behind the veil of email, they can sound scathing.   It’s amazing how nice they are when you give them a ring and they’re able to speak with a live human voice.

How to Manage Incoming Calls (When in Doubt, Pick it Up)

I will take any phone call that looks like they might be coming from prospects and customers. You can’t beat a live conversation for connecting with someone, developing a relationship, and gathering important market and customer intelligence.

The earlier you are in your company’s life and/or product cycle, the more I think you should seriously consider answering your phone early and often.

In a product company’s early stages, achieving product-market fit should be the number one priority. Until you reach that milestone, you don’t really have anything worth scaling up!  So “going broke on support” is not something worth fretting about.

Lots of phone calls also means that your customers care enough about your product (and their pain that your problem solves) to actually talk to you.  How many times have you called a company that you don’t care about, for a problem that doesn’t really bother you?

Dealing with Telemarketers

If you’re a small business, it’s easy to courteously shoo off telemarketers.  I politely explain that we’re a tiny software company, and we’re probably not the best prospect on their calling list (implicitly or explicitly communicating the fact that we are broke!).

This usually does the trick, and keeps things on the up and up as we each part ways to continue about our respective days.  And of course use your Caller ID – if the inbound call is from a 1-800 number, it’s probably a telemarketer, and you may want to just let that call go through to voicemail.

Prospects Call When They are Ready to Buy

Imagine you’re considering buying a new, yet-to-be-proven product.  What would help you make your decision?  Validation.  But what if your product is so new that your prospect can’t find reviews and other forms of market validation online?  That’s where a phone number becomes very powerful.  It allows the prospect to have a live conversation with the vendor and get answers to their most pressing questions – from a real, knowledgeable person.

As a small business, merely showing that you’re not hiding behind the veil of your computer is often enough to comfort prospective customers.  These days many people are used to finding their information online, and generally don’t  need to talk to a live person to make a purchase decision.  Often just showing that they are welcome to call you anytime is enough peace of mind for them.

How to Keep Your Call Volume Manageable

While you want to look and be accessible, you also want to keep your support workload under control.   Here are a few things we did that reduced the number of incoming calls:

1.   Product improvements and bug fixes meant fewer people would have problems to begin with.  This reduced our call/email volume in half.

2.   Redesigning our website (clearer copy, video demos, easier navigation) filtered out calls and emails asking fairly basic product questions.  This reduced call/email volume by 20%.

3.   Better support documentation (a Quick Start Guide, GetSatisfaction, and common support Q&A’s) further reduced call/email volume by 25%.  These days, we get one or two support call per day, on average, even though our user base and feature set continues to grow.

Give the Phone a Chance!

We remain huge fans of the phone!  In the early days of our company, we would gladly talk with anyone who wanted to talk to us.  That feeling still holds today, even though we’ve certainly progressed quite a bit from those earlier stages.  So maybe we remember our roots – maybe it really is a beneficial business practice – maybe a little bit of everything.  So far so good for us on the great “phone answering” experiment – we’d recommend you give it a shot!

Brett OwensAbout The Guest Author: Brett Owens is CEO and Co-Founder of Chrometa, a software startup that helps individuals and small businesses easily manage and analyze their time.   Brett is also the blogger and founder of the investing blog, and he contributes regularly to leading financial sites and


7 Comments The “Secret” Customer Service Weapon for Small Technology Companies

  1. Kim Albee, Genoo Marketing Automation

    I completely agree with this post!
    We are a small technology company targeted at small-to-midsize businesses, and one of the things we get kudos for is our customer service.

    As small businesses are working to grow their companies, using marketing technology well to automate much of the process — while helping to more effectively segment your leads and understand which ones are ready to be contacted now — having access to customer support is a critical component of learning to use those tools well.

  2. Anita Campbell

    Brett, excellent guest post. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how simple a solution to customer service there can be: the telephone. Yet many tech companies make it harder than swimming the English Channel to even find a phone number on their sites to call them.

    – Anita

  3. Brett Owens

    Hi all – thanks for the great commments! Glad to hear you dig the customer service angle as well!

    Great analogy Anita! Yes absolutely, who would have guessed the telephone – a blast from the past – could still be useful! 🙂


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