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Putting a Face on Support

One of the things that makes the Internet so powerful (effective, seductive, dangerous, intimidating) is the potential for anonymity. I don’t intend to get into the pros and cons of that in this post. I like the way a bunch of smart people outlined them here.

Here’s what I find more interesting in the context of Ting. While consumers may want the option to be anonymous (or maybe just inaccessible) at times, they are absolutely desperate to identify living, thinking, accessible, accountable, nameable human beings at their service providers.

We hear this a lot when people describe their customer support experiences calling into the big phone companies. They fight their way through touch tone systems that seem designed to inspire a hang up. When they do reach a person, that person is so limited by his visibility into the “big picture”, access to the right “systems”, problems that should be passed off to another provider (software, hardware) or even incentive structure (think about companies that weigh length of support calls heavier than result of support calls) that they were better off with the touch tone system.

And a huge part of the problem is that the customer support people remain largely anonymous to the customers. They don’t have direct contact information that could be used to follow through to a solution. They don’t have faces and often do not have last names. They don’t have a LinkedIn profile, a blog or anything that indicates what they’ve done or what they think. They have access to scripts and documentation, but there’s no way of knowing whether they are smart, passionate, empowered people who will dig deep into their own bag of tricks to figure out how to solve your problem.

Ironically, it seems to be the Web companies, who originally represented lean, technical, self-serve alternatives to the larger, people-rich brands, that are putting humanity back into customer support. Zappos is obviously a classic example. But ING, Zipcar, Southwestern Airlines and so many of these Web-focused challengers all seem to be doing it better than their larger competitors.

Maybe these companies have realized efficiencies that allow them to invest more in the length of their support calls and the quality of their people. Maybe if you build a service explicitly for savvier customers, you are less inclined to treat those customers like cattle.

These are the examples we want to follow. And we’re exploring ways to take it even further:

– No hold system at all. No touch tone menu. Dial the phone and somebody answers it. (We’ve done this at Hover. People are shocked.)

– Geek-powered support. Hire the sort of people who already solve mobile phone problems for their friends and families! Pay them to do it for us.

– Support through Facebook, Twitter, instant chat, even video chat. People with names, faces, profiles, email addresses and direct phone lines.

Nothing on that list is particularly profound or revolutionary. Most of it just makes sense. But how refreshing would it be to call up a mobile phone company and instantly get a geek with a face and a name that will work with you, potentially over multiple calls, until you are completely satisfied?

That’s not a rhetorical question. How refreshing would that be?

Every conversation is an opportunity. Even in a call center.

A close friend of mine told me a story about a recent interaction he had with the help desk staff at a large cell phone carrier. I thought I’d share it with you.

My friend has two cell phones, one paid for by his company and the other is for personal use. He’s been paying good money for a virtually unlimited data subscription on his personal device and realized that he’s rarely outside of a wifi hotspot. When he looked at his bill recently (something he rarely never does) his data usage just about floored him. He signed up for a virtually unlimited plan several months back and just now realizes that his usage was less than 100MB each month. And when he thought about it, he figured that nearly 100% of that usage was over WiFi.

So he called up his carrier on the phone and the agent said she couldn’t help him. She couldn’t help him, not because he’s locked in to a contract (he wasn’t), but because changes to data subscriptions for that phone must be done from the phone itself.

Pardon? A customer has called you on the phone for help, and you can’t treat this like the opportunity that it is and help him? What a waste.

I’m all for self administration on the device itself and I bet this carrier spent thousands of dollars designing the app. But when a customer calls in for help and you have them on the phone, why would waste such a valuable opportunity to serve their needs right then and there?

In the end, after some searching, my friend did eventually cancel his subscription from the device, but the interaction with the agent on the phone left him feeling uncared for, slightly confused and annoyed.

I want you to know that when you call us for help at Ting, we won’t let you off the phone until we’ve given you what you need, regardless if we have a self service way of doing this, or not.