How We Reduced Phone Calls by 94% AND Increased Sales

Update: This post was written way back in 2008. We’ve come a long way as a company since then. Over the years we’ve had the good fortune to be able to bring back phone support for Detailed Image customers who need it. While emailing us through our contact form is still the fastest way to receive a response, we do have our phone number listed on our FAQ page. We also offer support on Twitter and Facebook. In 2008 offering phone support would have impeded our growth and we may not have survived as a company. However, it still has tremendous value to many customers so we’re glad that we’re able to offer it now and hopefully we can expand that offering in the future.

Earlier this year we were getting crushed with customer service contacts.  Particularly with Detailed Image, but also to a lesser extent with SportsLizard.  It became apparent that emails and phone calls were becoming a full time job and that we either needed to A) find a way to reduce contacts, or B) hire someone to handle customer service.  In my previous life I actually tackled a similar project as an engineer on a much larger scale and was able to significantly reduce customer contacts without impacting sales or satisfaction.  So naturally, we gave option A a shot.

Before getting into exactly what we did and how, I want to preface everything with:  I do not recommend implementing this for a brand new site/business.  In the beginning it is important – especially as an owner – to have contact with as many potential customers as possible.  Your initial customers will likely give you important feedback about important adjustments you need to make to your business.  If you make it hard for them to contact you, I think you’re impeding your chances for success.

But after years and years of customer service, as is the case with both Detailed Image and SportsLizard, the same questions keep coming up and you just end up wasting your time copying and pasting the same response over and over.  For both your sake and the customers sake, making those answers readily available is a smart decision.

The Problems

We had three types of customer service contacts that were repetitive and time consuming:

  1. Detailed Image emails – questions about what products to buy, where we ship to, shipping quotes, technical site questions, etc
  2. Detailed Image phone calls – very time consuming.  The same questions as above, but dragged out over the course of 30 minutes or more many times, especially when discussing their cars and specifically how to detail them.  Now, these longer calls also generally resulted in large sales, so there was some risk involved.  However, in addition to the time spent on the phone we would also have to manually put the order through the website, which added an extra 5 – 15 minutes.  We knew it was worth it to take a stab at significantly reducing these.
  3. SportsLizard emails – mostly about the Price Guide:  how to sign up, how to cancel, and how to get better prices.  Also, people emailing in customs for the gallery was very time consuming for me to post.

Our Solutions

There are more complex solutions to these problems than what we came up with.  We were trying to get the most bang for our buck.  No sense in spending a week programming a solution when you can spend an hour and get the same results.  If the results fell short, we probably would’ve gone back to the old contact pages and spent time developing a more complex question/answer system.

Detailed Image:

Greg put together a FAQ of the most common questions.  I turned it into a “drill down tree” FAQ to replace the contact page.  So instead of a contact form that included our email address and phone number, customers are presented with the following:

Detailed Image Contact Page

Which drills down like so:

Detailed Image Contact Page

At the end of certain “branches” we give our phone number and/or email address, only when necessary.

SportsLizard:

Replacing the contact form with a page that has the top 5 most common FAQs, a link to a regular FAQ page for the rest, and the text “I checked the Frequently Asked Questions and they did not answer my question.”, which then reveals the contact form.

SportsLizard Contact Form

SportsLizard Contact Form

To minimize the time it takes to post a custom, I created a custom submissions form.

The Results

Detailed Image:

For the email side of things, Greg reports a huge drop off in basic questions like “how do I log in to the site?” or “how do I get a shipping quote?”  We are attempting to quantify the improvement, but the data set is incomplete at this time (it’s hard to determine what exactly constitutes a “contact” via email so it takes quite a bit of work to comb back through emails and only count specific instances).   That said, contacts are definitely down.

The phone is where we’ve seen a HUGE improvement.  I went back and studied our bills for the past few months. In March we had 36 incoming calls and we checked our voicemail 16 voicemail times.  In June we had 2 incoming calls and checked our voicemail 15 times.  That’s a 94% reduction in incoming calls.  We went from handling almost two per business day to handling none.  That’s a lot of time saved.

It should be noted that an incoming call only happens when the phone is left on, and we’ve been turning our phone off with the exception of turning it on to check for voicemail occasionally.  Keeping the phone off has the added dual benefit of allowing us to stay focused without distractions, similar to keeping your inbox closed or IM off (for another post).  So the combination of  adding a FAQ section, making it harder to find our phone number, keeping the phone turned off, and steering customers to email via our voicemail message has essentially eliminating incoming calls.  On the rare occasion that we do get a voicemail, I’d say half of them have already been resolved by email or by the customer themself and don’t require a call back.

SportsLizard:

I haven’t tallied the data, but I’d estimate I went from about 5 customer service emails/day to about 2 emails/week, a huge improvement.  I really love making people click the link that says “I checked the Frequently Asked Questions and they did not answer my question.”  That extra step of forcing people to click the link makes them spend a minute really thinking about their problem and checking the FAQs before jumping in and contacting us.  I really like this solution and will definitely use it in the future on other sites.

On the customs side of things, I probably went from spending 2-3 hours a week posting in the gallery, to spending about 10 minutes a week approving submissions in the database.

Financially:

Detailed Image is continuing to exceed our expectations, with 100%+ growth each month compared to the same month in 2007. SportsLizard – despite my minimal effort – has seen an increase in paid subscribers to the Price Guide and an increase in ad revenue.

Customer Satisfaction:

No, we haven’t done a customer satisfaction survey, but here’s my opinion:  most customers don’t notice a difference, some customers are more satisfied because they get their answer immediately via FAQs or our detailing guides or other info on the sites, and a small minority are mildly inconvenienced because they want a person on the phone right now.  For some businesses that aren’t e-commerce, that minority would be a majority and a system like this wouldn’t make sense.

In our case, we’ve made a commitment to minimize unnecessary contacts and funnel the necessary ones to email.  We have received a few emails from people who complain that they can’t find a phone number.  In these cases, we either apologize and answer via email or pick up the phone and call if the situation warrants it.  The difference of course being that we’re the ones deciding whether or not a phone call is necessary.

While I’m sure we’ve lost a sale or two because it’s harder to find our contact information, we’ve more than made up for that in revenue generated from the time saved.   It’s OK not to appease everyone – we know that the majority of our customers are happy and praise our sites for having exceptional customer service.  We’re now able to get to the important customer service emails faster.   I personally will sacrifice the profit from one pain-in-the-ass, hold-my-hand customer for the free time to pursue customers that value our time and won’t bother us with unecessary emails/calls without first checking the site.

The bottom line:  it seems as if my hypothesis – that putting a customer service system in place would save time without sacrificing revenue or customer satisfaction – was a correct one.   

14 comments on How We Reduced Phone Calls by 94% AND Increased Sales

  1. I came across this blog the other day and you got some great info here – thanks.

  2. PhoneTool says:

    Very relieved to read that the punchline wasn’t IVR.

  3. nethy says:

    Very good post Adam. It’s these sorts of micro-topics that make blogs an interesting medium. I couldn’t imagine reading this in a book or a magazine without putting it down, but in a blog, in context, it works.

    I know very little about Customer Service systems accept that they’re a problem everywhere. But I will venture a comment. I think that the combo of ‘hiding’ the phone number & improving DIY Customer Service is a bit of a problem.

    If you make it super-easy to contact you & work on your support materials at the same time, you get a sort of progress report: The number of support contacts/site visits, purchases or whatever.

    If the number of contacts go down you’ll know that it’s because questions are pre-empted & concerns are addressed. Basically you will be able to say with more confidence that less contacts = happier customers.
    On one hand it’s to be more scientific in ‘testing’ your hypotethesis. On the other hand, it’s probabably a good way of building your support materials.

    In the same way you can tweak your product pages for maximum sales, maybe you can tweak your FAQs for minimal Qs.

    T

  4. nethy says:

    I’ll put it anecdotally: Every time I’ve have to deal with a madem/router, I’m shacked at how complicated it is. They sell them for home use but it’s obvious that materials, interfaces etc. are there for IT people. I am pretty sure at least 50% of home users have trouble with it.
    It shouldn’t be so hard to make it easy. What you want from a router is pretty simple there aren’t that many decisions an average person has to make.
    What if they had to have (By government, magistrate or CEO decree) a big 1800 number on the box? Say, they make a gross profit of $20 – $30 on a router. A support call costs what $5-$15? (systems, training, hardware, managers, offices, staff etc.). That’s a big hit to the bottom line every time someone can’t figure it out. But in the not so long term the economics would force them to improve usability.

    nethy

  5. Adam McFarland says:

    @Import – thanks for taking the time to comment, glad you like the blog

    @PhoneTool – not a fan of IVR systems AT ALL

    @Nethy – great comment as usual. “If you make it super-easy to contact you & work on your support materials at the same time, you get a sort of progress report: The number of support contacts/site visits, purchases or whatever.” I probably should have prefaced the entire thing by also saying that each site already had FAQ/support materials in place that we had made readily available. Don’t get me wrong – we’re always trying to improve them – but we were still getting contacts related to questions that were clearly answered inline and in FAQs, which was the reason for such a preemptive measure. Even if the answer is easy to find, a lot of customers (in our experiences of course) will just click the contact button and call regardless. Being a small business with limited resources, we had to make the call to essentially “force” them through our online support before allowing them to contact us.

    You’re general premise is correct (the router example is a good one): it’s not a band-aid solution to cover up other problems that shouldn’t be there in the first place. Again, I probably should have prefaced the post a bit better, but that wasn’t the goal here. We’re certainly also doing that constantly as well. The “perfect” website doesn’t need a help or contact section because it is so user friendly that anyone can figure it out. Google search is probably the only example I can think of. Definitely not feasible for us to be that user friendly, but we still strive to eliminate any usability questions inline during the user interaction so that they don’t have to pause and read an FAQ or contact us.

  6. nethy says:

    Hi Adam,
    I didn’t mean it as a shot. (I don’t think you took it as such).

    I realise that 1/2 hour support calls (or even 5 min emails) add up, interrupt & are time costly, especially at the stage you are at.
    I can imagine that ‘didn’t read the manual’ type questions are especially annoying. It’s a tough (costly) decision to make. The big corporate version is outsourcing call centres vs working locally/inhouse.

    BTW – it’s interesting you bring up G!. They do something similar for adwords help. Basically, they guide, point & force you though questionnaires & try to point you to the DIY help materials whenever possible with a lot of ‘are you sure you wouldn’t rather look through the materials yourself’ before you get to send a form or chat to someone.

    Occasionally, (presumably when Sergey & Larry are bored) a chat button used to pop up. Lately they’ve been less determined to steer you away from the people though. If you know which buttons to press you can usually get through to the chat pretty quick.

  7. Adam McFarland says:

    Nethy – I definitely didn’t take it as a shot. You are a fantastic commenter who brings up points of view that I don’t usually consider.

  8. […] perfect example is our customer service system.  Here’s […]

  9. […] from.  Do everything within your power to reduce the number of emails you receive…including setting up FAQ systems like we did to minimize email […]

  10. Joseph says:

    Hey Adam,

    I really enjoyed reading this blog especially since I am currently taking a course at my university that deals with Service Marketing. I feel like you are a guest speaker from my class lectures.

    The importance of the service sector is growing rapidly and I have become more and more interested in the different aspects of not only the importance and relevance of customer service but also on the solutions to such problems. I look forward to reading more of your blogs!

    -Joseph

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