Service Channel Breakdown Part 1: The Phone
For most companies, the telephone is the default channel for customer support.
Often without giving it much thought, they place a phone number on the website and assign the support team the responsibility of handling whatever comes in.
But it doesn't have to be this way. As I covered in 6 companies that quit phone support , offering phone support is a choice, and one that comes with upsides and downsides.
In this article, we'll dive deeper into the topic and through a breakdown of the phone as a support channel – covering its strengths, its weaknesses and sharing best practices.
Personal. Part of the reason that many customers prefer the phone is that it meets a basic human need: a direct line to a real person who can empathize with your issues/concerns. It’s the closest technology to a real-life conversation.
Immediate. The phone is also more immediate. Because conversations take place in real-time, both sides have a sense of whether they’re on the same track, and quickly correct any misunderstandings. This is particularly important for complex problems.
Compared to other channels, the phone has a high first-contact resolution ratio . Even though they might be forwarded from one person or department to another, customers can generally stay on the line until their issue is (close to) resolved.
Trust. Certain products and services depend heavily on trust, like cars, weddings and industrial machinery. Phone is crucial for such businesses to generate leads and sales. It lets customers know that there are real, trustworthy people behind the business.
Expensive. For all its benefits, the phone is one of the most expensive channels a business can offer. An agent can only focus on one customer at a time. What’s more, because phone communication is verbal, documentation isn’t simple. Which means there are no transcripts to search through, and no efficiency gains in reusing previous answers to recurring questions.
Frustrating. The costly nature of phone support is the main reason why customers often face long wait times; queuing is the only way to mitigate costs — even though it’s the most common of customer frustrations . Phone support may offer more of a human touch, but it’s very often a frustrating experience for customers. In the age of now , few have the patience to wait in a queue.
When a customer does eventually reach an agent on the other end, they’re often put on hold while the agent forwards them to the right person. The customer then needs to explain the issue again (since there’s no documentation), and if they’re unlucky, they’re forwarded again.
Eight tips for quality phone support
Now that we have an overview of the phone’s strengths and weaknesses, let’s look at some tips for delivering outstanding phone support .
Stand up when calling
This is a trick that all good salespeople who do cold calls know about. On your feet, you naturally come across more energetic than when seated. It's a simple matter of heart rate and blood flow.
When reaching an agent in a call center, they often sound as if they’re about to fall asleep. Which is logical if they're seated all day. Try having your agents use standing desks as a quick improvement to your phone support quality.
We humans are visual creatures. Our attention often fixates on what we look at. When we’re talking face-to-face with someone, it’s relatively easy to focus on the other person.
When we’re on the phone, however, there is no one to look at. Instead, there are hundreds of possible distractions calling out to you from your computer screen or mobile device alone. Especially when we get a bit tired, it’s easy for our thoughts to wander.
When you notice your attention drifting, try closing your eyes. This naturally makes your mind focus on the only input of information: the sound coming from the phone.
Use the customer’s name
In the words of Dale Carnegie, "A person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language."
Do note that it’s easy to overdo it and come off as inauthentic. Try using the name at the beginning of the call (after the customer’s introduction), in the middle (captures attention), and when closing the conversation (leaving on a positive note and signaling that you remember them).
It’s true what they say: a smile can be heard on the phone. A study by the University of Portsmouth showed that people can hear whether a person on the other end of the line is smiling.
A smiling voice sounds warmer, making the customer feel that you’re happy to speak with them.
Speak with structure
On the phone, a lack of context and visual cues can pave the way for misunderstandings. Your customer can easily lose track, and they can’t read back on what was said.
To counter this, it’s important to speak with structure . Matt Abraham suggests sticking to structures like What – So What – Now What, or Problem – Solution – Benefits . This provides a framework for agents without robotic scripts.
When memorizing a phone number, for example, it’s easier to remember a structured number (07-1634-8516) than an unstructured one (0716348516) .
Use verbal cues
In face-to-face conversations, you would insert “Ah” and “I see” or “right” into conversations to show the other person that you’re listening.
This is even more important on the phone, since you can’t see the other person and they can’t see you. By throwing in the occasional verbal nod into the conversation, you let the other side know you’re listening and prevent them having to ask “Are you still there?”
Refer to your other channels in your recorded message
As I explained earlier, it’s impossible/unaffordable to always offer instant phone support. When the pressure is up, waiting queues are unavoidable.
Customers mostly just care about having their issue resolved quickly . So when they call you and receive an automated message telling them that there is a long waiting time, that’s an immediate disappointment.
Instead of simply asking the customer to hold (or worse, call back at a later time), the recorded message is a perfect opportunity to educate the customer on your other, faster channels. You could use a message like:
“Thank you for your call. Our phone lines are currently busy. You are #x in the queue. If you prefer, you can also reach us via our website chat or WhatsApp , which tend to be faster for resolving your questions. You can visit our contact page or send a WhatsApp message to [business-number]. I repeat: [business-number]. If you prefer to talk on the phone, please stay on the line. To hear this message again, press *1*.”
Use the phone as an escalation channel
For many businesses, the phone is an essential channel for lead generation and sales . Some products and services are too complex or trust-dependent for a low-touch purchase model.
What we often see with many of the customers we work with here at Userlike, however, is that they jump from that realization to making the phone their primary contact channel – spreading it wide across their website and promotional materials.
If most sales happen through calls, then more calls equals more sales, right? There are two issues with this approach.
First, when you spread your phone number far and wide, post-sales or support requests will also come in through this channel. And the phone is a costly and frustrating channel for handling them.
Second, even though the phone is powerful for closing sales, it’s not optimal for starting sales conversations. This is because the phone has a rather high barrier.
To reach out for a sales call, your customer needs to leave the comfort and privacy of their current web surfing flow — introverts, anyone? They will do so when the motivation is high, but not for small questions.
It’s why website chat is so powerful for lead generation . An integrated chat box allows for the customer to ask simple questions while looking at your website and without forfeiting anonymity. From there, the support agent can build trust by answering questions and eventually escalate the conversation to a phone call.
With Userlike, we built a feature to make this escalation from chat to call as seamless as possible: Audio Calls.
While in a chat, the agent can offer to switch to a browser-based call. This means that the call can take place without the agent first having to ask the customer for their phone number. That said, once you’re at the point of a call, the built-up trust makes it easy to ask the customer for follow-up contact information.
While overall the phone is best used for escalation and not as a first contact channel, there is an exception. You can try selectively offering phone as a channel to your most valuable customers. We also do this at Userlike . Larger customers can always call their personal account manager for help.
Even though this is an expensive service, it’s worth it to keep a close line and strengthen trust. And since it’s selective, waiting queues are not an issue.
There will always be a role for phone support, but here at Userlike we believe that the future of customer communication is in messaging. If you’re curious about customer messaging and using our audio calls feature as an escalation channel, then you can sign up for a free Userlike trial here.