Yes and no.
Yes, in that it lets you get closer to your customers. There’s nothing quite like talking to your customers one on one to find out exactly what they think of your product, of your company, how they found you, and everything else. Having a phone number also gives some credibility to your company.
No, because phone support is extremely costly. Most people don’t realize it, but phone support is several times more expensive than online support for the same customer base! As well, although it increases the sales, it’s nowhere near in proportion to the extra costs. I now understand why pretty much every software company charges for phone support.
So is it a viable option? Maybe… Rather than debate the hypothetical, I’m going to share our latest experience with free phone support and our prototype project here at LandlordMax. There’s nothing better than a case study! The results might be different for you and your company, but this is what happened for us.
When I first started LandlordMax, I offered support through email only. In the beginning it was pretty simple, I could manage it all through my email client. As the company grew, the support needs grew where we ended up purchasing a customer support system called FogBugz (allowing multiple people to manage support through a web application). As our needs continued to grow and exceeded even this software (we still actively use it for project management and bug tracking, it’s strong suite), we moved up to HelpSpot which is focused on customer service. This is an online system which accepts requests by email, through online forms, etc. All requests are allocated a ticket number and everyone also receives an online link where they can view the details of the request directly online if they want (including every detail, from how long it took to respond, and so on). This is great because it alleviates a lot of the issues with people who have very aggressive spam filters (because we’re a real estate based business, sometimes we need to use words such as “mortgage”, etc., which are often wrongly picked up as spam by email filters).
Because of the way our customer service system works, we’re able to offer free unlimited online support which is guaranteed to be answered within 1-2 business days (generally we answer it on the same day). This is great because most of our competitors charge for ANY support, and some quite a bit! Never mind phone support which I’ll get to in a minute.
About three months ago we decided that we wanted to start offering free phone support to our customers. Up until now, that is for the past 3-4 years, as I just described, we’ve been offering online support only (email, web forms, etc.). We wanted to see if it made a difference, how much, and if we could offer it for free. You see, although I could charge for phone support like our competitors, I really don’t like this option. To give you an idea of the market, most of our competitors charge between $100-200/hour for phone support!!! Some only offer email support if you buy a support contract. Another competitor will only sell you their software if you also buy a minimum support service package of $200! Personally I don’t believe in this. If you buy a product, you shouldn’t have to pay to get some help in answering your questions. I understand there is a place for premium support, for example a guaranteed response within 24 hours, etc., but this wasn’t out goal today.
I also do understand the business behind it, phone support does cost money. And let me assure you, it really does cost quite a bit. Not just in technology or service costs, but in man-hours! Man-hours are your largest cost factor, no doubt about it. Anyways, what we decided to do was offer free unlimited phone support for 3 months as a trial experiment to see if it was a viable option for us. Hopefully by offering phone support this would increase our customer’s happiness, and hence increase our sales. We also decided to use 3 months because it gives it some time to build momemtum As well, perhaps we’d also be able to add some extra sales from people who were more timid about purchasing software from a website and would rather purchase it over the phone.
That was three months ago. Today I know the results. So let’s look at the results of our experiment. Although I’m not going to share the detailed metrics, here’s a summary of what happened:
- The average time to support a customer increased significantly over the phone versus online support. There’s nothing wrong here, it’s just the way it is. I would say that on average the time spent responding to a customer increases by 2-10 times. This can be attributed to the fact that some people ask more questions on the phone, some wish for you to wait while proceeding through the steps (for example waiting for the purchase email to make it through), sometimes you wish to wait to verify that the customers issue is fully resolved, and so on. Overall I would say this is fairly accurate metric for us.
- For each person who answers the phone you need to train them in your software. This includes how it works, how to properly answer questions, what the procedures and policies are, etc. To achieve a good support level this is not a small task.
- With phone support, although we don’t promise an immediate answer (we keep the same guarantee of 1-2 business days), phone calls break people’s workflow, their rhythm. For every break in concentration expect between 15-30 minutes of lost time to get back to the same productive state. With online support this can be drastically reduced by answering requests in batches during breaks, or what we list to call “mental breaks” (where you need to look at something different to give you brain a break). By doing this we keep all support responses in blocks and greatly increase overall productivity!
- Long distances phone charges do add up… We’re using a VOIP system but that’s also not without it’s own costs.
- Sales have increased, but nowhere near in proportion to the extra costs (especially if you add in the time costs). I’d say that we’ve barely increased sales by 10% and almost multiplied our support costs by 5-6 times. Therefore it doesn’t make sense to spend 5-6 times more money to make 10% more!
- One thing that you really benefit from is that you get real live customer feedback about your software. I personally found that when I was on the phone, people told me a lot more about what they liked and didn’t like about the software right away. They also told me what their biggest pains where, which is golden! Which features do you think we’re going to add next? Probably where our customers biggest pains are!
Therefore, weighing in the pros and cons, it looks like we’re going to discontinue free phone support. Actually at this time, we’re going to discontinue all phone support. We’ll probably try it again in the future, things do change, but for now it just doesn’t make economical sense.
I can already hear some people saying why don’t you just offer paid phone support for those customers who want it. This way you don’t have to build it into your price and those that are interested can pay. The reality is that I’ve found that only about 7% of our customers (combined with pre-sales) use phone support. I can’t speak for every industry, but assuming these numbers, and the fact that we’d have to charge, I believe that the total percentage of people who would use paid phone support would drop significantly. Because there is a minimum fixed cost associated to having a call center, we’d still have to charge a minimum fee per call to just cover the costs. Assuming only 10% of the people who use phone support would be willing to pay the fee (I’d guess around $100/hour), then that would mean 0.7% of all customers would use this service. I’m not willing to risk the significant amount of capital it would take (we’d now also have to add a billing system to our phone system) to support 0.7% of our customers. At that point, unfortunately, I’d have to welcome them to purchase from our competitors.
As you can see, it’s not that I don’t want to offer phone support for LandlordMax, it’s just that it’s not a viable option for us. And yes I understand that some people will not purchase anything from a company that doesn’t offer phone support, but that’s ok. I’m willing to lose that very very small percentage of customers. Assuming they’re 10% of the 0.7% of customers willing to pay for phone support, we’d be losing 0.07% of our potential customers.
Therefore, to answer the question based on our experiment, is it viable for software companies to offer technical phone support. Again the answer is yes and no. It depends on your market and who you are:
Software under $100
I seriously doubt you can do it for free. I also doubt you can charge for it either! Unless you have economies of scale and you can seriously amortize your costs, no one is going to pay you the price of your software for assistance! And if you did offer phone support, it couldn’t be more than one call for free at best, if that. I looked up Quicken, a large company that can use the advantage of economies of scale, and they only offer free phone support for installation, purchase related questions, etc. After that, any help within the software (for example how to setup a bank, etc.) will cost you $24.95 per issue, or 86% of the purchase price!
Software between $100-$250
You’d still be hard pressed, but you might have a chance. Of course you could only offer one incident at most, and every additional call would have to be charged. Also if your company is smaller than a medium sized company ($10 million plus in annual revenue), I just don’t see how you could offer free phone support.
Software between $250-$1000
Possibly. Here’s where it gets interesting. I think in this case the industry and specifics of the software will determine whether you can or not. To give you an idea of just how difficult it still is at this level of pricing, Microsoft Office only offers you two free phone support sessions and then they charge you $35 per additional incident, all this for a product that costs $399 for the “standard” edition!
Software over $1000
Generally software over $1000 comes with some sort of SLA (Service Level Agreement). The more expensive the more comprehensive the agreement. Under $5000 it will be somewhat limited, but over $30,000 it becomes generally becomes much more comprehensive (before LandlordMax I had only worked with one company that sold software for under $30,000). Often in these markets there are a limited number of customers, and the vast majority are corporations where phone support is expected as part of the SLA (wouldn’t you expect it if you paid $1 million for a software package).
So all said and done, looking at our cost to benefit ratios, it looks like we’ll have to end our phone support for now. There’s not much to debate about. Like I said earlier, we’ll probably try it again in the future, maybe next year… I don’t know. But for now, we’re going to go back to online support only (email, online forms, etc.). I just can’t justify the substantial extra costs for the amount of extra revenue it provides. This would be like asking a landlord to build a private pool for each apartment unit to generate an extra 10% in revenue. It just wouldn’t make sense, landlords don’t do that.
To quickly end the discussion, since I know some people will ask, do you regret experimenting with offering phone support? Absolutely not! I think every business is different, and every business should try it! You can’t grow without trying. Michael Jordan didn’t just start scoring baskets on day one, he tried a lot of things before he figured out just what worked for him. So try things, test what works and doesn’t for your company. Maybe you’ll have very different results than we did at LandlordMax. Please comment if you did, I’d love to hear about it.