In One Channel and Out the Other

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Headquartered in Santa Barbara, Calif., wireless music system provider Sonos allows audiophiles to blare digital tunes from one room to another. The company gives its customers music wherever and whenever they want it, and it tries to apply that same mind-set to customer service.

Recently big-box retailers such as Best Buy and Brookstone started carrying Sonos products in their stores. As a result, a less technical and more mainstream customer base has emerged. When Sonos launched in 2006, it appealed mostly to “gadget geeks,” meaning early adopters with a good grasp of technology, explains Mike Carlino, senior director of customer service for Sonos. Not only were the company’s support people able to talk the lingo but the support questions also were more sophisticated and technical. But customers buying from Best Buy presented a new challenge to Sonos.

To accommodate customer growth, Sonos broadened its customer service mechanisms. “When I joined Sonos, customers communicated primarily through the phone. We didn’t have a self-help option,” Carlino says. “I realized that people were asking us a lot of simple, content-based questions that we could have made available to them, and saved them the phone call.” So, Sonos began giving its customers more options for support. The Sonos Support landing page now offers FAQs, forums, online manuals, and links to email and live chat.

In 2007, 85 percent of support cases were handled by phone. Today, 40 percent of communications are phone-based, and the rest occur electronically: online chats, self-service FAQs, or Web inquiries, Carlino reports. Sonos gets 14 to 15 views of its knowledge base (FAQs) for every phone call. Users rate the site as effective—its metric of “helpfulness” rests around 98 percent.

“We monitor the knowledge base every day so we can determine what types of issues customers are not finding answers to,” Carlino says. “Depending on searches and misses, we can situate where and what [content] is in our knowledge base.”

In addition to its FAQs, Sonos runs a lively community forum for users, who are given latitude to express themselves. The Sonos staff does step in on occasion with fresh content, answers to common questions, and requests for feedback. One recent post, for example, asks forum members if they have cool ideas to feature in upcoming Sonos products. Sonos support also keeps a close eye on social media and often addresses music industry trends in its forum. Carlino says that the support team uses TweetDeck to monitor mentions, but it tries to avoid troubleshooting over the social network.

“We let customers know that we are listening and respond when there’s a level of criteria,” he says. “If there’s an issue that requires escalation, Sonos asks the Twitterer to move the conversation to another channel to work through it.”

With its entire support staff housed internally, Carlino says, Sonos is committed to hiring people with strong communication and service skills. “If the support is only technical, that puts a strain on how you handle a [customer issue,]” he says. “Having the right level of expertise and having good customer service skills has been very important.”

Sonos also prides itself on the career paths it provides its employees. Realizing that handling customer calls can become tedious, Carlino, a 20-year customer support veteran, tries to give staff extracurricular projects that take them away from the phone. At the end of the day, Carlino says that Sonos fosters a culture of passion. “Having been doing this for a long time, I have never been in a company where, as a service leader, I have gotten so many thank yous.”

“A lot of times, especially among startups, it’s easy for service to be the afterthought,” Carlino admits. “But if you make a verbal commitment to support and make the investment to continue to build service organically, and invest in training and technologies, that goes a long way.” From gadget geeks to mainstream music lovers, good customer service is one thing that all customers could get used to hearing.

Email the editors at editors@destinationCRM.com.

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