February 24, 2007

Customer Service

Nice essay from Joel Spolsky on what it takes to provide great customer service:

Seven steps to remarkable customer service
As a bootstrapped software company, Fog Creek couldn’t afford to hire customer service people for the first couple of years, so Michael and I did it ourselves. The time we spent helping customers took away from improving our software, but we learned a lot and now we have a much better customer service operation.

Here are seven things we learned about providing remarkable customer service. I’m using the word remarkable literally—the goal is to provide customer service so good that people remark.

1. Fix everything two ways
Almost every tech support problem has two solutions. The superficial and immediate solution is just to solve the customer’s problem. But when you think a little harder you can usually find a deeper solution: a way to prevent this particular problem from ever happening again.

Sometimes that means adding more intelligence to the software or the SETUP program; by now, our SETUP program is loaded with special case checks. Sometimes you just need to improve the wording of an error message. Sometimes the best you can come up with is a knowledge base article.

We treat each tech support call like the NTSB treats airliner crashes. Every time a plane crashes, they send out investigators, figure out what happened, and then figure out a new policy to prevent that particular problem from ever happening again. It’s worked so well for aviation safety that the very, very rare airliner crashes we still get in the US are always very unusual, one-off situations.

This has two implications.

One: it’s crucial that tech support have access to the development team. This means that you can’t outsource tech support: they have to be right there at the same street address as the developers, with a way to get things fixed. Many software companies still think that it’s “economical” to run tech support in Bangalore or the Philippines, or to outsource it to another company altogether. Yes, the cost of a single incident might be $10 instead of $50, but you’re going to have to pay $10 again and again.

When we handle a tech support incident with a well-qualified person here in New York, chances are that’s the last time we’re ever going to see that particular incident. So with one $50 incident we’ve eliminated an entire class of problems.

Somehow, the phone companies and the cable companies and the ISPs just don’t understand this equation. They outsource their tech support to the cheapest possible provider and end up paying $10 again and again and again fixing the same problem again and again and again instead of fixing it once and for all in the source code. The cheap call centers have no mechanism for getting problems fixed; indeed, they have no incentive to get problems fixed because their income depends on repeat business, and there’s nothing they like better than being able to give the same answer to the same question again and again.

The second implication of fixing everything two ways is that eventually, all the common and simple problems are solved, and what you’re left with is very weird uncommon problems. That’s fine, because there are far fewer of them, and you’re saving a fortune not doing any rote tech support, but the downside is that there’s no rote tech support left: only serious debugging and problem solving. You can’t just teach new support people ten common solutions: you have to teach them to debug.

For us, the “fix everything two ways” religion has really paid off. We were able to increase our sales tenfold while only doubling the cost of providing tech support.

Six more excellent and thoughtful ideas at his website

Posted by DaveH at February 24, 2007 01:02 PM | TrackBack
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