37signals, call me.

I woke up this morning and wandered over to 37signals‘ most inspiring blog, Signal vs. Noise, to read Sarah Hatter pointedly asking How can anyone ever ask us why we don’t offer phone support?

At FreshBooks, we have a commitment that if you call us any time at 1-866-303-6061 from 9am to 6pm EDT Monday to Friday, one of us at the office will answer. I’d tell Sarah we don’t just do this because we’re friendly Canadians, but because it makes all the difference.

Sarah makes the fair point that as a civilization, Western companies have repeatedly stabbed a knife in the faces of their customers in the past twenty years. Try calling your local telco or bank to fix a billing issue, and you’ll likely to be on hold for 45 minutes. In this day and age, she accurately argues, no one expects to get phone support because other companies suck at it.

In a perfect world, calling a business for help would be quick, painless, productive, and human. But it’s not and it’s not going to be. That old time ideal of calling the local retailer or company and talking with someone after two rings was demolished by the call centers and overseas help desks that sprung up in the information age.

Here, I’d turn her argument around, and answer the question. The whole advantage of a small company is that they are more accessible. Indeed, she answers her own question why people want phone support.

Now, I know people want to pick up a phone and talk to a live human being. We all want assurance that our money is being spent on something maintained by human beings who speak our language and hopefully live in our same country. I get that instinct, because I share it at times.

Personally, I have to believe smart people wouldn’t trust their mission critical business to a company whose throat you can’t choke. At FreshBooks, many of our calls are people kicking the tires before they buy just to make sure we’re alive and responsive.

I’ll tell you the secret of why we answer the phone. Sarah is completely right: people don’t expect it. When we answer the phone right away, we have proved we’re a different kind of company. We demonstrate we put a priority on customer service.

Our motto here is Execute on Extraordinary Experiences Everyday. As Sarah points out, good customer service is in fact extraordinary in the sense that it’s abnormal. That’s sad because everybody wants it.

Therefore, if you want to truly brighten the day of a customer that wants to phone, answer the phone. It’s good for business! When a customer hits a wall, we can free their minds immediately by being a real human being that takes ownership of the problem and fights on their behalf. Those customers become your most loyal advocates.

So, why answer the phone? Because you can. Because it gives you a chance to turn a frustrated customer into your greatest customer evangelist. Because you’ll hear great stories from happy customers every day. And because no one expects it, and that makes you look extraordinary.

Still not convinced? Call me!

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  • http://www.wildfirestrategy.com Tamera Kremer

    Great points Sunir.

    In my mind, it comes down to giving consumers a *choice* in how they want to interact with you, not the other way around.

    The worst example of companies not having phone support are small ISPs who are only available via email… which of course defeats the purpose if your internet connection isn’t working.

    Kudos to Freshbooks for giving your customers an option!

  • http://BatchBlue.com Pamela O’Hara

    As always you guys are taking such good care of your customers. For us, folks calling in on our 800 number (answered by product staff – not outsourced) are generally taking a first look at the product and just want a quick way to find out if it will do what they need it to. Basically, potential customers calling requesting our sales pitch. What small business doesn’t want to take that call?

  • http://jeremiahx.com J.J. Merrick

    It’s funny that when I read their blog post yesterday I thought “hmm that’s an interesting idea but I know FreshBooks does phone support and I wonder what they would say to this”… guess I got my answer! :-)

    I have been using FB personally for about 2 years. First for my consulting business then for the webhosting business I acquired and now I have my full-time job converted over to using it for their software product billing. i know that when we signed up the latest company that my boss wanted to use an Amex and was required to call you guys to do that. He mentioned that his experience was nice and that it was a great first impression.

    I can see it both ways as I have about 350 webhosting customers in the side business and I just can’t answer the phone all the time. i would get no work done. I can’t afford a CS person so I have “Trained” my customers to use the email system. I do have a 800 number but it will force you to leave a VM which gets emailed to our ticketing system. It also explains that if it is an emergency you will get a call back but if not expect an email back as your response.

    I would love to have the staff to answer the phone during the day but I just simply don’t. If given the choice you should do your best to keep the phone calls down by giving really good help files and documentation. But if someone gets stuck then having the number is a very nice security blanket.


  • http://www.spotonpm.com Alan Delaney

    This is a subject that is very near and dear to my heart. In fact one of the other posters here J.J. works for our company, so this subject is obviously something that resonates throughout our company, which is nice to see.
    I am the person in J.J.’s comment that had the nice experience on the phone with Freshbooks, and in fact, have had more than just one pleasant and productive experience with Freshbooks personnel.
    The concept of creating a positive customer experience has been lost IMO. There are many companies out there, web and brick and mortar, that leave the customer feeling like they are a wallet with a human attached. This is the wrong approach, but companies create that experience over and over again. I applaud Freshbooks for not doing that and making me feel that my issues were as important as any. I only hope that we can be as attentive and available for our customers as my experience here has been.

  • Mort

    The question remains: how can a company that offers a partially free service afford to include phone support? Especially in the early stages of growth – both money and time are inevitably limited.

    Any ideas from the folks at FreshBooks on how a company just starting out can manage the costs associated with providing toll free phone support?

  • Mort

    I would think it’s important to consider your target market when considering whether or not you can afford to offer phone support.

    The Freshbooks clientele are probably on average a lot more tech savvy compared to the clientele of, say, an internet provider. Making the Internet provider clientele more costly to serve.

  • http://www.headfirstmarketing.co.uk Chris

    I too read the Signal and Noise post yesterday with mixed feelings.

    Customers do want a choice, and a quick response to an e-mail is impressive in an age when mass-automation dominates online. But with amazon you are buying a book, a product that is what it is. Almost a commodity product. With 37 signals and Freshbooks each is a service to individuals who in turn have individual issues and questions.

    Only this week I e-mailed FB ( due to time difference here in the UK) and expected the usual protracted exchanges. I was v impressed I got the answer and solution within hours. Fantastic service!

    Would I rather phone? Every time. Why? Because I can interact with another person rather than type in silence. Resolve things more quickly. Possibly learn something I didn’t know.

    And let’s not forget, employees are a huge part of the brand experience for customers. The smiling barrista who chatted with you as you picked up your coffee this morning at Starbucks has a greater influence over your perception of Starbucks than the logo over the door, the seating, the price…or an e-mail from their customer service team,

    Keep the phone lines open FB, you’re doing a great job.

  • http://www.freshbooks.com/our-team.php#levi Levi Cooperman

    Hi Mort,

    Thanks for the comments. To answer your question about how a company just starting out can afford phone support – I think you are right, it does depend on the clientele and the product, but fundamentally a company just starting out really can’t afford NOT to answer the phone. The absolute best thing a new growing business can do is talk to their customers. At FreshBooks, especially in the early days, we all jumped at the opportunity to talk to our customers. We setup a relatively cheap phone system and 1-800 number (it is less than you think) and made it part of our daily workday. I find if you provide a partially free service, relatively speaking, not that many people call, and the ones that do are very respectful of the time they take up. We were able to get a lot done and still answer the phone and respond to support emails.

    Chris, thanks for the comments. FYI, FreshBooks now has a toll-free number for the UK and Ireland. It is isn’t up yet on our site, but here are the numbers:

    Toll Free – UK: 0-808-101-34-08
    Toll Free – Ireland: 1-800-949-046

    Please give them a try and let us know if you run into any issues, since it is kind of hard for us to test these from here!

    – Levi

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  • Diana

    I’m really torn on the idea of phone support. Personally I prefer email support when I need help and as someone who provides customer support I’m not a big fan of phone support. I think it really depends on your audience though. In my case I often end up spending a good deal of time looking at someone’s code and helping them edit and test, that’s just not possible over the phone. It’s a lot easier for me to get that email and have time to research and help them fix what they need to fix.

  • SLA’s

    Yet again – small time thinking. Try scaling 50,000 customers through one 800 number where the “CEO” (and I use that term losely) answers the phone.

    Hope you guys have good cash reserves, because you’re going to be small for a looooooooooong time. This is coming from someone who started a web-based small business in 2003 and now has 80,000 customers and 60 million revenue/year.

  • Deano

    How about the “prospect vs. customer” issue?

    I’d say that, once someone becomes your paying customer, you should have some* way to have them reach you by phone – this also answers the “startup” issue – freebie gets nothing, paying gets a direct line.

    As an aside, I had a great experience with Dell CHAT support the other day – normally I have to wait on hold forever to set up RMAs, and convince one or more techs that I know my stuff, and tried all the basic steps. With chat, I get the immediacy of knowing they’re reading my stuff right away, as well as the clarity of type, and the ability to retype/cut and paste “live” into our conversation… The best part? Once they had agreed to a repair, they emailed me a confirmation – complete with a full log of our chat!

    It blew me away, and just made me realize how impossible the like would be over the phone, and how even email usually fails to “keep it all together” in a way that I, or any subsequent support person, will be able to easily read.

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  • http://www.ringcentral.ca 1 866 toll free numbers

    It’s nice to know about this toll free number. This is just an indication the you are serious with the business and that customer service is among your priority.

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    Business Pages
    congratulations to freshbooks for considering customers interests. it will be very helpful.

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