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Should Your Company Abandon Phone Support?
Why several Silicon Valley-area firms have done just that and are sticking with their decisions.
For the rest of the April 2013 issue of CRM magazine please click here
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Don't Call Us

"There is definitely a push to social channels," says Leslie Fossett, solutions architect in the business process outsourcing unit at Capgemini.

That's especially true of the leading social media site operators. For companies like Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook, it's all about faster service for customers, who already spend a lot of their time online.

"While there are times when phone support still makes sense, our goal is to give our users the fastest answer with the best possible experience. We've found that an online support model works best," a Google spokesperson explained in an email.

The central component of Google's customer support strategy is its online Help Center, where users can sift through gigabytes of data on their own or post questions to be answered by company employees and customers "who have acquired a great deal of advanced knowledge about our products and services," the email said.

LinkedIn's inaptly named customer support line does not take customers to an interactive voice response system or a live operator; rather a recorded greeting refers customers to the Help Center link at the bottom of any LinkedIn page. The company also lets customers interact with it via email, live chat, or a dedicated Twitter channel.

"We take a members-first approach to everything, and that includes how we build our various customer service channels," says Krista Canfield, senior manager of corporate communications at LinkedIn, in an email.

Facebook prefers customers to contact it by chat rather than with a phone call. The number one social network claims that customer support via chat provides more personal attention than email and none of the annoyances of being on the phone, such as long automated IVR menus and hold times.

Facebook's online support systems reportedly process more than 2 million customer requests per day, and with one employee for every 300,000 users, handling a large volume of phone requests would be close to impossible, the company claims.

That these social media giants are pushing customers to social and online channels is not surprising. "It makes sense to me that they would try to get as much benefit as they can from social," says Cindy Tierney, vice president of operations and chief information officer at Vocalocity, a provider of business VoIP technology and services. "Everything about these companies is all about being online all the time, and [not emphasizing online support] would work against them."

The trend is not only hitting the social scene. Across all industries, only 84 percent of U.S. companies still offer phone support. Email support is available at 81 percent, Web self-service at 66 percent, social media at 43 percent, and Web chat at 27 percent, according to Fifth Quadrant's data.

Of those, Web chat is the channel that most firms are looking to implement. Sixteen percent of firms plan to implement it within the next 12 months, and 42 percent within the next two years, the research firm found.

Also working against the phone as a customer service channel is its perceived cost. While companies like Square, Google, and LinkedIn maintain that their decisions to eliminate the phone were not based on economics, phone support remains a painfully expensive service. In fact, at most companies, it eats up about 8 percent of revenues and 15 percent of staffing, according to some industry estimates.

"It's not necessarily that companies are hurting for cash, but the phone does take away profitability," Fossett proclaims. "The call center is still a cost center."

The Phone Needs Support

To mitigate the high costs associated with live phone support, many organizations have turned to automated phone support or IVR systems. Unfortunately, many have done so at the expense of customer satisfaction. The fault—more often than not—lies not with the vendors but with the companies that have implemented IVR technology in their call centers. "IVRs can meet so many customer needs, but there have been a lot of poor implementations, and there's a lack of management of that channel," says Dimension Data's McNair. His firm has found that two-thirds of contact centers don't schedule regular reviews of their IVR systems.

On top of that, the systems aren't supported with other technologies designed to make them work better. Computer-telephony integration, for example, is widely available, but at more than half of all companies, information that the customer has already given to an IVR is not passed from the automated system to live agents, according to McNair. "Information has to be repeated, processes have to be duplicated, and that takes more time, adds direct costs to the organization, and frustrates callers," he says.

What's more, IVRs often leave customers on hold, an irritant cited by 58 percent of consumers in a recent survey by TalkTo, a company that enables consumers to text a business rather than call. The typical consumer spends between 10 and 20 minutes on hold per week, amounting to 13 hours per year and almost 43 days over his lifetime, according to the study.

"Telephone self-service is sadly in need of some self-help," McNair states.

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