June 13, 2011

5 Ways to Reduce Customer Support Costs

Customer support is a fact of life — no matter what you sell, providing assistance to customers who experience difficulties with your products or services is a necessary part of the sale. And it’s expensive. Customer support costs figure prominently in the expense budget of any company. Many high tech goods and service providers have moved customer support offshore to try to keep costs down.

There are a few additional ways to reduce customer support costs, and keep customers deliriously happy in the process. In ascending order of importance, here are my top 5 ways for companies to get a clue about improving user experiences and keeping customers from picking up the phone.

#5 – Empower ALL Employees to solve customer support problems instead of passing them off to someone else. Don’t further frustrate a customer with a problem by transferring their phone call elsewhere. Bring the solution to the customer instead. If the customer has inadvertently called the wrong department, or their problem exceeds the level of support provided by their first call and must be escalated, ensure they have a support champion to make sure they get the help they need. Design the customer support workflow in your organization so that there is the shortest distance (or at least the straightest path) to getting a solution. Occasionally bring other types of employees into the loop on customer support planning. You’d be surprised at the ideas the sales and marketing team will come up with for making customer’s lives easier. Or the accounting folks — who keeps track of the number of refunds made to dissatisfied customers every month? Anyone who has contact with customers should be providing information to management about what customers need and want. Even employees engaged in peripheral activities are representatives of your company. If your company-wide focus is not on your customers, what ARE you talking about?

#4 – Provide Self-Service Customer Support that is quick and easy, not a nightmare of complications. Customers really do like to solve their own problems. They’ll spend hours searching forums and asking questions online in order to get help with their issues. (Hint: some of your customer support people should be doing that too — gathering information that can be adapted for use on your own customer support site, which is the first place customers look for assistance.) Remember too that customers who start looking for answers are already frustrated by the problems they’ve encountered with your product or service. Don’t annoy them further by making them hunt for answers or navigate through a maze of voice instructions or web pages that take more of their time. If they will need to enter data such as a serial number or account information, tell them that up front so they can gather it before starting the support process.

#3 – Eliminate Customer Support Liabilities or any errors that FORCE people to call customer support for resolution. Everything from known bugs with no workarounds, to user traps (3 wrong attempts to input anĀ  account number will result in a lockout, but you forget to tell the customer that), and unanswered questions can prompt the customer to pick up the phone and take up customer support time. While many companies have service level targets that attempt to handle calls in the most efficient manner, sometimes customers need education and understanding as well as answers. Make sure your design team is thinking about what could be a problem for customers down the road. (See clue #2.) Are you capturing information about the kinds of calls you are getting? Are there ways to head off those calls by improving documentation, fixing the interface, providing a Quick Start guide, or automating anything? By the way, take a long, hard look at anything that says “Just follow the instructions on the screen…”. It’s an automatic support call if the customer doesn’t get that screen, and there are plenty of ways that can go wrong. Example? Customers who buy floor model electronics set in “Retail mode” have to reset their equipment but are never given instructions on how to do that, and it is never covered in product manuals.

#2 – Build Intelligence into your Systems to prevent customer support calls. Automation is a wonderful thing, when it works. User Experience architects (UX), usability professionals, technical communicators, and human-centred designers all know how to add information to a product or process to ensure that customers either cannot make a mistake or that what they are supposed to do is clear and easy. From something as simple as showing the input format for a date or postal code so customers don’t have to guess and then re-enter that information, to button placement, clear links, and workflow design, you can make the product or system support the user in what they are trying to do. Often, this is transparent to the customer. They know that something is easy to use, but they don’t realize that it’s because a lot of work went into the design ahead of time. Good example here are the point-and-shoot cameras. Kodak’s Easyshare camera is a little dream of a gadget, with plenty of intelligence built into the camera interface. Good design requires that you test, test, test, TEST to make sure you’ve got everything covered.

#1 – Hire a Technical Communicator. You may have the most outstanding Customer Support honcho on the planet, but a technical communicator on the team will be of immeasurable value in spotting potential customer support issues in the making. Someone experienced in tech comm is well versed in how to create good user experiences as well as how to design systems to eliminate customer support liabilities. A good technical communicator is a bridge between the technology and the customer in a way that few other roles in your company can replicate. Technical communicators can write and edit content that leads a customer through a painless self-help process or provides user instructions that ensure customers can find answers to their questions. A true Swiss Army Knife employee, a technical communicator will add value to your bottom line in many ways.

Get a baseline of your current customer support processes and costs. Then implement one or more of the above suggestions. Track the same information monthly and you’ll soon see those customer support costs drop. Investments in better designs, better customer communications, and better user experiences will pay off handsomely on your bottom line.

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Need help lowering your customer support costs or growing your business? I have some ideas for you. Contact me: beth (at) bethagnew.com


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