Get on the phone!

Many thanks to Sam Levy for suggesting this topic.

When you tell new acquaintances you work in support, the first image in their minds probably features rows of headset-wearing folks eagerly speaking with customers. It’s ironic that, for most of us, support is provided online, via email, chat, and screen sharing, and rarely on the phone — and, further, that it can be very challenging to encourage our team members to actually get on the phone and talk to customers, even when it would make for a much better, faster experience.

If you would like your team to use the phone more, here are 8 questions to ponder.

1. Is it really a problem?

You may feel that issues would get resolved faster and better if the support engineers would call customers rather than play email ping-pong, but perhaps it’s not a problem. Comb through customer satisfaction surveys for clues, and also run some statistical analysis to find out whether phone conversations really do improve resolution time and customer satisfaction.

2. Is there a generational gap?

The youth these days just don’t use the phone (for talking live, that is). They feel it’s rude to simply call someone up (see #6). They have little experience of live calls (see #5). They feel it exposes their business to others (see #3). It is helpful to remind them that they are not bothering customers by calling them: the customers needs help, and fast.

3. Is the physical environment counter-productive?

Are your support engineers sitting at communal tables with no more than a foot or two between them? It’s not really surprising that they do not long to use the phone, is it? They don’t want to bother their neighbors, and they may be concerned that someone overhearing them will draw negative inferences from what they hear. I’ve seen phone booths set up nearby but I would not want to get up and lose my bearings every time I want to talk to a customer…

4. Are you hiring extreme introverts?

Some people just don’t like to be on the phone — ever, at any age, and in any physical setting. If you are hiring very technical people you may be, unwittingly, selecting against phone callers. Include some phone calls in the selection process to gauge the comfort level of the candidates.

5. Are you training the engineers to get on the phone when needed?

After the fact, it’s often easy to see that a customer should have been called at a particular point in the flow of the case. It’s less easy to see that in the heat of the moment. So craft a list of suggested circumstances for when to call rather than email (and please do not make it a rule — let the support engineers use their best judgment!). For instance:

  • If you asked for a specific piece of information twice and the customer supplied something else, call.
  • If you have more than X questions, call.
  • If you need to see the failure yourself, arrange for a screen sharing session.
  • If the customer seems highly upset, call. (This is counter-intuitive for many support engineers who would love to hide behind email, so highlight the benefits of speaking directly to upset customers and train, train, train on how to handle upset customers.)
  • If the customer seems extremely naive, call.

5. Are you training the engineers to get off the phone when needed?

My partners and I regularly work with support engineers who tell us they hate the phone. When we dig a little more, the issue we surface most often is that they don’t know how to end conversations when they do not have a ready answer and need to do some research. So we suggest pleasant wordings such as “I understand that you are trying to do X and you are getting this behavior. Let me work on the problem on my end and give you an update in Y hours”. Sounds simple and obvious, but it needs to be practiced until it flows smoothly, otherwise the support engineer will come across as defensive and ignorant.

(You can read more about our training programs here.)

6. Can engineers schedule calls with customers?

Phone tag is just as annoying and wasteful as email tag. I often feel that email was invented specifically to deal with the deluge of pink message notes that enveloped support work in the 1980s. (You must remember those if you are beyond a certain age…)

The obvious remedy is to make an appointment for a call — but that is often difficult, even discouraged in high-interrupt support environments. Consider structuring the support engineers’ days with “on queue”, high-interrupt blocks versus research and scheduled calls blocks. (O, and make sure they have access to a good scheduling system that is integrated with the case tracking system…)

7. Is there an easy way for customers to call back?

Ideally all calls can be scheduled but hey, we work in support, which means we know all about non-ideal conditions. Make sure that customers can call back, and can call back with minimal hassles. (In my book, this means they can reach the support engineers directly. Yet another opportunity to train the support engineers to gracefully push back on customers who abuse the privilege and “call back” with totally different issues for weeks on end.)

8. Are you measuring touches rather than results?

Why would a support engineer go back and forth in email multiple times without making real progress? Well, one reason may be that the incentives perversely encourage this behavior. Are you myopically focused on response time and update frequency, forgetting resolution time and customer satisfaction? That would be enough to lull support engineers into thinking that lots of emails equal a job well done.

Are you finding it difficult to convince support engineers to get on the phone? What techniques have you used?

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