We’ve all seen it in movies; the vaunted Red Phone that the President uses to call a world leader directly to save mankind from global war. It’s the ultimate end-run around the bureaucracy.
When first starting out in business most founders by default are answering that red phone and every client has the number. It’s simple, it works, and customers typically love the feeling of having direct access to the the senior levels (the only level) of the company for any issue however big or small.
There is nothing wrong with this at first. Founders have to wear many hats and they don’t mind the extra work. After employee #2 or #3 come’s on board the red phone duties are typically shared by everyone and it is manageable. This however does not scale.
Weaning customers off the red phone.
Many of your early customers are accustomed to the direct access and immediate remedy of their issues. This is a good thing as they are hopefully respectful of your time and return the favor by being early and vocal ambassadors of your service. This was the case between myself and the founder of a vendor we utilized in the past. I knew I could go to him with whatever I needed and he responded, in turn I was vocally supportive of his service.
Around the 5th or 10th employee though it makes sense to put a little bit of process in place around support, after all you have hired dedicated people to do it. It’s time to encourage your early users to use the new support channel you have put in place, but to do so you need to assure them their experience will not change for the worse.
In the case I cited earlier, I was slowly handed off to his new support team with reassurances I would be well taken care of. As a founder myself I can certainly respect that more demands were being placed on his time and he had to get out of the red phone calls to continue to grow his business. He was still available for the “world is about to end” calls when needed, but less and less so as time went on. Which is how it should be. They had a real support staff at this point that took great care of me. We were taken care of, life went on.
Things you can say to a customer during the weening process:
- “You’ll get faster response times working with my team now than waiting for me.”
- “The team I hired is top notch, and actually better skilled than me in some of these areas.”
- “It’s better to have 10 points of contact that one.”
Assuring new customers the Red Phone is not needed.
Now you have 25 or more on staff with well established support protocols. You really should not be taking any calls on the red phone unless you choose to (high value client, etc). Your sales team is in the old habit though of promising red phone access to new prospects. Stop that right now. Seriously, bring down the pimp hand and stop it.
Assuming you want to keep scaling, you must guide customers through the proper support channels at all times. This is not to say you cannot have different channels for different customer types, but there needs to be consistency in the process which leads to efficiency at scale, and better outcomes for the customer. It’s really all about setting expectations and keeping them.
At Pagely, we have a more direct support channel for high value customers. We set the proper expectation during the on-boarding process on how that channel works, and what the client can expect utilizing it.
Inevitably though some prospects really really really want that red phone, or a single point of contact. We assure the client with this reasoning (YMMV):
- We do not provide a single point of contact in most cases as we feel it works better for our customers to get the same quality of support regardless of who they work with.
In order for that statement to be proven true a few other items have to be true.
- Every member of our support team needs to have the skills to address any issue.
- Every member of our support team needs to have knowledge and contextual understanding of the client’s site and history
Those are tall orders.
Why customers want the red phone
A typical support channel at a typical hosting company is broken into tiers.
- Tier 1 support agents are your call center types: They triage the case, maybe have cursory knowledge of the product and can close the “reset password” and “Where do I login” cases. They can even sell you a new domain name. Most everything else gets escalated.
- Tier 2 has been on the job for a while and know their way around. They can handle more in depth cases but are typically prevented from doing so by protocols around system access.
- Tier 3 can actually solve your issue. They have access and the skills to do so. There is likely 1 Tier 3 rep to 20 or 30 Tier 1 reps in a large organization.
- Tier 4 have the keys to everything and skills to do anything. They are not public facing and only process work requests bubbling up from the tiers below.
This is the system your customer wanting the red phone is accustomed to. There is a problem, their site is down during a big media event and they have to go through 2 levels of support before they get to someone that can actually help them, and even then they may have to wait longer for their place in the tier 4 work queue. They have been through the call tree and pressed #0 one too many times in desperation.
At Pagely, we avoid the red phone issue and the typically poor support experience found in the industry by making sure those two point’s we mentioned previously are as close to true as we can make them.
Every member of our support team needs to have the skills to address any issue.
We solve this by doing away with the tiers all together and only hire mid to top level folks. Every support agent at Pagely could wear at least a “Jr. Engineer” title at any other company. Every agent has SSH key-based access to every server, and commit access to our git code repository. I trust every agent to take care of our customers as good or better than I can. This means we pay them more, and this also means they perform much higher than average, which has the added effect of 1 agent delivering the output of 5 lesser agents with no additional affect on workload. Greater Skills = Greater Efficiency
The customer wins as regardless of who helps them they actually get their issue solved as that agent has the skills and know how to do it. No ex-taxi drivers crammed into call center cubes reading a script here. (No offense to taxi drivers)
Every member of our support team needs to have knowledge and contextual understanding of the client’s site and history.
The problem you then run into is scaling the tribal knowledge. Without a dedicated rep knowing the ins and outs of every customer we need every agent to have at least a cursory knowledge of the client’s history, setup, and potential problems.
We achieve this via weekly and sometimes daily stand-ups (virtual), and prodigious use of internal notes as we attempt to document as much as we can in the most succinct way possible. This allows an agent to get up to speed in a few minutes even if they have never helped this particular customer before. Standardization of infrastructure and specialization in WordPress go a long way to help us achieve this.
No customer likes having to explain their problem to 5 different people. Historical context is a huge part of the support win.
Scaling a high touch support channel
This is where we are now. We are replicating our high touch “only work with experts” approach as we grow. We don’t have all the answers here and we may make mistakes along the way. Fortunately we are able to scale at a pace that allows us to recruit and hire the top-performers we are seeking. (This is one of the pluses of not being VC backed, we are not under pressure to grow at all costs which leads to putting unskilled staff in a call center to work Tier 1)
Our goal is own the top end of the WordPress hosting market by delivering a level of product and support unmatched elsewhere. I firmly believe we can succeed in this and keep a high-touch/high-skill tier-less support channel operating without the need of a red phone. Maybe you can too.