If your eCommerce store is just starting out, chances are that you already offer email customer service (and hopefully take our advice to use something like Help Scout). However, while email service is a staple of eCommerce stores, you probably want to offer other methods of customer service.
Offering a multichannel customer service approach lets customers help themselves to find the answers they need, keeps them informed as to what’s happening with orders, or can provide a quicker answer to a question to improve the overall service experience with your shop. Different customers prefer using different communication methods, so offering a few customer service channels acknowledges this.
One of the most difficult customer services channels to offer is phone support.
There are both pros and cons to offering phone support that you should be well aware of before doing so. However, despite the cons of phone support (many of which revolve around the cost and time to do so), there’s one thing that can be said about phone support: it doesn’t scale.
Normally that would be a bad thing, but sometimes doing things that don’t scale can provide a completely over-the-top experience of your customers that makes them loyal to your brand for life. This is one of the advantages to being small that Paul Graham cites:
That’s one advantage of being small: you can provide a level of service no big company can.
Phone support is one way to do this. Not only can you provide a level of service that large companies don’t provide, but you also get really valuable insight into the pain points your customers are hoping your product can solve. Groove took this approach to talk to all of their users in order to learn about their experience with Groove’s product:
Early on, there’s nothing you can do that’ll inform your strategy better than talking to your customers. There’s no other way to deeply understand their challenges, and get a true sense for their experience with your product.
Even though we’ll discuss pros and cons of offering customer service via phone, you’ll need to decide if the cons are obstacles to you offering phone service, or if despite these, it can be a valuable opportunity to learn about customers and grow your business.
The most valuable reason to offer phone support is to leverage the human connection it provides, which is absent in many other customer service interactions. While customers can often forget they’re talking to a real human being over something like Twitter, having a phone conversation reminds the customer that a real person is behind the business, helping them relate to you and your company.
While it may not be a large source of conversions for your store, phone support can also provide the opportunity to take orders for your shop. The need to accept phone orders will depend on both the product you sell and your average customer, but it’s an alternate way to order for some customers.
Phone support can also help you improve your website, FAQs, or knowledge base. Any customer service channel exposes you to issues or questions customers have throughout the shopping experience, which can help you improve this experience on your site, or add common questions to the resources available on your site.
Talking to customers on the phone also helps you understand your early customers. Andrew Youderian at eCommerce Fuel cited this as one of the top reasons to offer phone support:
Especially early on in a new business, there’s no better way to understand your customers than by talking to them directly. You’ll learn all sorts of things about them through casual conversation that would never come up in an email.
He also notes that offering phone support can depend on the pricing of items in your shop.
The more expensive the items, the more likely your customers will want to talk to you before pulling the trigger.
For shops that offer items at high price points, chances are a customer will want to talk to you before purchasing to ensure they know exactly what they’re getting. While offering phone support for $40-50 apparel purchases can be helpful to customers, it can become essential when they’re ordering tools or hardware worth thousands of dollars.
Phone support can also be one of the fastest customer service channels, as customers get answers to their questions immediately (along with a personal touch):
The single most important thing to consider for new upcoming eCommerce store owners is to have a physical person, with a telephone, who can be a link to the real world and deliver personal customer care when needed.
Too many companies have tried to establish themselves as ‘purely online’ and don’t offer telephone support, and take far too long to respond to customer queries by email.
– Scott Lummes
The biggest con to offering phone service is that it can be costly. You can only help one customer at a time via phone support, and it requires knowledge of your company and products. Typically, phone support requires you to hire a part time person if you don’t have the availability to field calls yourself.
This is another con that Andrew Youderian points out:
It’s expensive: Providing good phone support is downright expensive (from a staffing perspective), which isn’t necessarily a problem if you have rich margins or high per-order profits. But if you’re selling smaller items, or working with thin margins as a drop shipper, it can be very difficult to offer phone support and still be profitable.
Phone support is also really difficult to do well. Despite being the most frequently used way that customers get in touch, phone interactions are typically rated at 44% satisfaction, which is one of the lowest satisfaction ratings of any service channel.
Answering questions on the phone doesn’t always afford you the time to look up an answer or compose an appropriate response to an angry customer, which can lower customer satisfaction with phone service.
Phone support can also become a time-suck. Customers may start to chat about unrelated things, ask questions about products you don’t even offer, or default to using the phone to get in touch instead of reading your FAQs because a phone call is low-investment — the customer doesn’t have to spend time composing an email or reading content. This also increases the cost of offering phone service.
Despite their high cost, phone calls also may not result in conversions, meaning that revenue may not offset the costs of phone support.
If you decide that phone support is valuable to offer, there are some tips you can follow and tools to use.
- Determine what percentage of orders are generated from phone support to determine its worth to your store. You could note the customer’s name during the call to see if they ordered after asking questions, or you can view orders that are placed manually via the phone to get an idea of how phone support impacts your revenue.
Regardless of whether you offer phone support or not, be sure that your customer service doesn’t suffer.
While I decided not to offer broad in-bound phone support, I was focusing on other areas to make sure I was offering quality support. Things like sending out free replacements for defective items, upgrading packages to express shipment and quickly replying to emails.
I was intentionally choosing not to do business with a small segment of my customers (those who needed to call in), but was making sure to offer top-notch support in all other areas of the business.
- List your number on your “about” page and contact page, but link to FAQs or other customer service resources first to encourage customers to use these channels for questions.
- Make it easy for mobile users to call you by making your phone numbers clickable. You can do this using a telephone link (use the international format):
<a href="tel:+1-555-867-5309">Call 555.867.5309</a>
- Manage calls via a dedicated number for your store (either a local number, or a toll-free number). There are a few tools that are really useful here:
- Google Voice can let you register a local number and forward calls to this number to your cell phone, office phone, or elsewhere.
- Grasshopper lets you get a local or toll-free number and forward to different numbers at different times
- Talkroute also lets you get a local or toll-free number and forward to different numbers at different times
I’ve used Grasshopper in the past but I’m looking to switch to Talkroute. However, both are solid options for managing your business number and call forwarding.
There’s no right answer for whether phone support is a good fit for your eCommerce business.
When your store is small and just starting out, the costs of offering phone support can be minimal in comparison to the benefits that you get, such as a better understanding of your customers. However, this isn’t a hard and fast rule for every business, as the type of product you sell, average product cost, as well as your availability all factor into the phone support equation. Ultimately you’ll need to determine if phone support is right for you and your business.
If you don’t choose to offer phone service or you want to start with a smaller time investment, you could look into using callbacks as a lower-risk way to chat with customers via phone. This lets you take the customer’s information (usually via a form on your site), and call back within a certain time period (i.e., within 1 hour or between 9am and 1pm).
Callbacks can help to ensure that you’re not in the middle of a task that’s interrupted by a customer call, and can still offer the benefits of talking to your customers to understand their needs.