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Thank You for Your Service

How to Turn Customer Service from a Cost Center to a Profit Maker

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us!” – Robert Burns

We dread calling customer service because we know it’ll be a uniformly bad experience. The customer service “technicians” seem like ill-informed drones reciting canned suggestions in response to predetermined diagnostic questions, with no real idea how to – or incentive to – actually help us solve a problem. 

Customer service and tech support probably aren’t even staffed by the product company’s own employees. As often as not the job is outsourced to a call center that’s good at optimizing office space, telephone trees, and labor costs, but isn’t really a technology firm at all and certainly isn’t staffed with experts in troubleshooting real-time C# applications. A job in tech support is usually an entry-level position, not a place for the gurus to showcase their debugging talent. 

Product companies (like yours, in all likelihood) treat customer service/tech support as a cost center. It’s an expense, not a revenue generator. Like the rent and the utility bills, it’s a cost to be minimized, not a feature to be optimized. Hence the outsourcing and the lukewarm talent and the customer torment. 

But what if… what if your customer service department actually made you money? What if it was a cash cow instead of a cost center? And what if your customers didn’t actively hate calling you and, in the words of Scott Adams, “confess [their] inadequacies to a stranger whose best career option is to work in tech support.”  

Quite a few companies are turning the usual cost model on its head and treating their support organizations as assets instead of liabilities. Done right, the outcome is happier customers (always a good thing), happier employees (ditto), and positive cashflow. We’re three for three! 

The easiest way – but also the worst, in my opinion – is to turn your support personnel into salespeople. They’ll handle the customer’s complaint, but they’ll also try to upsell more products or services on the same call. I can help you remove that malware infection, but have you tried our premium antivirus product? I can see that your router has a configuration problem, and here’s a discount code if you purchase our newest model. 

Please don’t. This just adds insult to injury, since your customers aren’t calling your help line to get a sales pitch. They’re not willingly calling at all. They’re in a bind and in a bad mood, and it’s a safe bet that the phone call or live chat was their action of last resort. A few of your more enterprising call-center employees might squeeze out some extra sales, but your customer ratings will suffer for it. The department might defray some of its costs, but it’s not a good long-term strategy. 

A better approach is to treat customer support as market research. It’s still an expense, but it’s one you’d willingly pay for anyway. And, the feedback you get directly from your customers is research gold compared to the usual generic surveys, reports, and trend analyses you’d buy from third parties. Questionnaires and focus groups are all well and good, but those respondents are self-selecting – and they know they’re being surveyed. It’s a sanitary laboratory environment, as compared to the messy real-world feedback you get from customers calling out of the blue. 

Do 23 percent of your customers complain they can’t find the right menu option? Time for a long talk with your UX designers. Does the AC adapter fail after seven months in the field? Better get a new supplier. Do products arrive damaged, late, or with pieces missing? Let’s have a meeting with the fulfillment department. 

Surveys address only the specific questions you asked – and usually not even those – so they present a very narrow window into your customers’ experience. The unfiltered, and unexpected, feedback from customers calling in is valuable data. It’s also private data, unlike the publicly available market research your competitors are reading. 

Another good way to improve your return on the customer-service investment is to cycle your own employees through it. That is, everyone in the building, from the receptionist to the electrical engineers to the neckties upstairs has to work in customer service for a month or more. A single day of “bring your colleague to work” doesn’t cut it. Everyone has to actually do the job, and do it effectively, for several weeks. Otherwise, it’s just a game and a timewaster. 

Train new employees by starting them out in customer service, even if the job they applied for (and got hired for) is in another department. Explain that that’s just part of the deal. Consider it a mandatory internship, or your own form of “onboarding.” This will accomplish a few things. 

For one, it gives every new employee a real understanding of what your products do, how customers use them, what they expect (or don’t expect) of your company, and what aspects of your product they find frustrating and/or delightful. They’ll also get a feel for your customers’ general level of expertise. Do most callers have basic first-timer problems, or are their questions more esoteric and obscure, suggesting they’ve already mastered the essentials? That tells you a lot about your product design and their learning curve. 

Again, the unfiltered, off-the-cuff feedback is valuable stuff that can’t be replicated elsewhere. Compare this to the usual new-employee onboarding process of corporate videos, glossy brochures, walkarounds with colleagues, and other forms of inward-looking mythologizing. Learn what your customers think of you before you start absorbing too much of the corporate propaganda. 

Later on, that experience will color employees’ decisions and directions in marketing, product design, QA, and every other department. They’ll remember, to a greater or lesser degree, what it was like working on the front lines. And customer orientation is never a bad thing. 

Finally, a good customer service department pays dividends in customer satisfaction. Whether it’s Yelp reviews, Amazon feedback, or general goodwill, a good service department goes a long way toward boosting the bottom line. Yes, it’s hard to quantify that kind of benevolence on a balance sheet, but we instinctively know it’s there. Who hasn’t avoided a product because it got bad reviews, or because the company has a reputation for being hard to reach? A shiny new product may lure early adopters, but long-term success depends on delighting them after the sale. Call it good karma. 

They say the happiest days of a boat owner’s life are the day they buy it and the day they sell it. Make your customers happy a few of those days in between, and they may never want to sell.

One thought on “Thank You for Your Service”

  1. Many years ago, I managed a large group that worked mostly as you suggest. (I can’t take credit for it; it was that way when I got there). All engineering students that wanted to work anywhere within marketing had to go through this group first, for 15 months of OJT. The hotline wasn’t the favorite thing at all (especially when you’re very new and dealing with a frustrated experienced engineer who doesn’t have time to train you over the phone), but it was good training and we were good (or lucky) in our hiring, so we had good folks.

    Sometime after I had left, a recession hit, and my understanding is that they took engineers off support and used technicians instead. And, through the grapevine, I heard that support suffered as a result. I’m cautious about saying that, since it’s rumor, but…

    To be sure, it can be a challenge to balance the goals of support and training.

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