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Great customer service - online or by phone?

Great customer service - online or by phone?

Great customer service - online or by phone?


One of the challenges of writing articles for a company blog is to write about the right stuff. It’s easy to write about stuff which really isn’t relevant to our customers. No-one really wants to hear what I think of Batman - The Dark Knight, or what our CEO has for breakfast. But every now and then something interesting comes up in the blogosphere, which we just have to give our opinion on. Rohit Bhargava is a pretty well known marketing blogger and he’s reported on a disagreement of what makes good customer service.

Essentially a company called 37Signals believes that offering email-only support makes for excellent service. Another Web 2.0 company, Freshbooks believes that telephone support is an essential part of excellent customer service.


We think we’re something of an authority on customer support delivered online, and have a stack of awards to prove it. So I thought it would be interesting to add to the debate and provide our perspective on what makes for great service. We fundamentally believe excellent support, delivered online is perfectly possible. In our ideal world customers would only ever phone us if their broadband service was totally broken (and hopefully we’d know that before they even phoned us).

We’ve always aimed to deliver as much customer support online as possible, rather than by phone, for several reasons. Customer self-serve and automation is a core principle of our business model. We believe customers want to find their own answer and are perfectly capable to do so if you provide the right tools – why wait in a call queue to tell an agent your new billing details if you can log on the website and update them yourself in half the time?

Around 16,000 contacts per week (customer service enquiries, technical support requests etc) come through our Help Assistant and around 24,000 come into our Customer Support Centre via the phone system. We have two customer support sites - Sheffield, UK and Durban, South Africa. It’s more efficient for us to deal with support requests online rather than by phone, as we don’t have to deal with them in real time. That way we can manage the peaks and troughs of demand better. We provide customer support statistics and an SLA so customers can see how quickly we respond to tickets and when the quietest times to call us are. The benefit of online support is that because of the efficiency we’re able to employ fewer support staff per customer than our competitors. In turn that means we have lower costs and pass these onto our customers in the form of lower prices and more attractive products.

We developed our online support system to replace email support as we believe email isn’t accountable enough. We always want to make sure customers can track their query and if different agents in different teams work on the ticket, our customer can always check on progress. Also absolutely everything that happens to that ticket is recorded so our customers can always see a complete audit trail. We also give updates via email and SMS.

Over the years we’ve tried various different things to promote online support and improve our service. So generally speaking we’re in agreement with 37signals that customer support for web applications and web services should be delivered online. Having said that we know some customers really do want to speak to someone to get an issue resolved. This can be particularly important for business customers and we have a dedicated business support team specifically to meet that need.

We’ve got plans in place to trial customer support via instant messaging and also give our customers the ability to add their own support tips and user guides to our website so that everyone can benefit from the shared knowledge.

What we believe is fundamental however is choice, consistency and quality. If customers want to phone up you should provide the support and it should be just as good as any other channel for support. If customers prefer to use our website for support then that needs to be top notch too. An opportunity for feedback and improvement is a must. So we track feedback on our tickets and run monthly customer service surveys to track call quality.

In the future it seems hard to believe that anyone brought up with laptops, iPods and smart phones will accept having to phone a call centre to get technical support. Online will be the first place to look for help. Waiting in a queue to speak to someone for help simply won’t be tolerated. Is the end in sight for Call Centres as we know it? We think so.

Do you prefer online support to phone support? Would you do business with a company that refused to pick up the phone? We’d love to hear what you think.

Neil Armstong Products Director, Plusnet

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