In this final piece of a four part article series on customer service we look at one of the key components of a successful Internet business – a good customer support person.
If you have been following along this journey you will remember how Starbucks taught us the importance of good customer service as a powerful tool for reputation management, which can lead to a competitive advantage in the marketplace.
We then switched to the Internet business world and followed along the typical path of a solo entrepreneur growing an online empire. With success comes pressure to continue to deliver personalized support, despite less time available to do so. In the end one person can only do so much, and customer service suffers.
In the most recent article I went back in time and reviewed my own personal experience developing various Internet projects and how I evolved the system I use to interact with my constituents. The major conclusion of this piece was the importance of Angela, my customer service person.
Now let’s take a look how you can take the next step with your business and outsource your customer service role.
Start With A System
It’s likely you will begin by providing customer support yourself, especially if you work your way up as an independent operator. Along the way you can install a help desk or set up a customer support email account. You may go as far as replicating the ReplytoYaro.com support system I use.
The previous article looked at a several technology options available to you to implement a system for online customer support. I suggest you use my story as inspiration to build your own support system, and while you do, think about how eventually another person (or people) can run it for you.
Most help desk scripts are built for multiple users and as I explained in the prior article, a Gmail email is a great basic solution to get started and can also handle multiple users through the use of message flagging.
Once you have something set up, your next task is to find a customer support officer.
How I Find Good People
Most advice you read about outsourcing suggest you go to freelancing sites and submit a job to find someone. I give this advice myself and I will suggest it again in this article, but not quite yet.
I’m going to be completely straight up with you regarding how I find good people to work for my business. I have never used a freelancing site to hire an outsourcer. To find good people I always rely on two resources:
- My social network (mostly offline networks)
- My blog
Your email newsletter is also a good option because it’s very similar to your blog in terms of the relationship you build with your subscribers. I don’t include it above because I haven’t used my own list to recruit people – yet – I’m sure that will change in the near future.
Every person who has ever worked for me came after I met them through shared friends or colleagues, or because I advertised on my blog that I was looking for help.
Angela who runs my support email, is a friend from university. Many of my friends studied information technology at university (I studied Business) and the people I met after university work online too, either as freelancers or running Internet businesses. As a result, whenever a need has come up I’ve had several local contacts I could query to find good people for web projects.
Local networking is by far my favorite method for finding good people. I prefer to work with locals, even though it costs significantly more than outsourcing overseas, because I like that we can meet from time to time in person. Personal contact helps for certain jobs and it also helps to cement a long term relationship when you find good people. Given I work mostly alone at home, I appreciate the social contact, even if it is often work related.
When my social network hasn’t delivered a person for a job, I next call on my blog. Robert Kingston, who helped manage several website acquisitions I made during 2006 and 2007, first volunteered for a job writing for SmallBusinessBranding.com. Mick Real, who currently does design work for me (he is responsible for the recent Entrepreneurs-Journey.com redesign) showed up after I posted on my blog looking for a graphics person.
The great thing about advertising on your blog when you need helpers is the people who apply already know you. They understand what your business is about, what your personality is like, what kind of work you do for other people, etc. This is a huge advantage and yet another benefit of blogging.
Every business, in my opinion, should have a blog if just to use it as a recruitment tool, especially given how critical it is to find good employees. Where else can you find a group of people who love what you do so much that they eagerly track your blog posts. Is that a good source of potential employees or what? Yes, I think so, but I digress…
If your blog is not related to your business you might feel inappropriate to advertise work you have available, especially tech or support jobs when your blog is not even closely related to these topics (you don’t want to go off-topic and scare away your readers right?).
I think it’s fine to write a couple of sentences on your blog, regardless of its topic, to link through to a job ad you can host on a separate page. You never know, the people who read your blog might just happen to have experience working in customer service or love the idea of working with you because they love your blog.
Don’t underestimate the power of your blog to find familiar people. It’s this closeness and familiarity with what you are about that can be a huge asset. You don’t need to train them about your operation – they already “get” what you do online.
If your social network fails to deliver any contacts, no one is reading your blog so it might be difficult to locate good people through it, then it’s time to try the traditional outsourcing avenues.
Any of the following sites offer possibilities to find a good customer support officer – and this list is far from comprehensive – you can find plenty more resources through Google search.
The problem with all of these options is the randomness of the people you come across. You can find great people who you end up working with for years, or you can stumble from person to person, struggling to find support staff who do a good enough job.
Hiring inappropriate people is a problem. Not only is the work you want them to do not getting done, you are devoting your own time to train them and correct their errors. Until you find appropriate people, you can go backwards before go forwards.
Finding people through your blog or social contacts is also open to the same problems, but because the source of people is generally by referral, you find people who have already been tested and proven reliable. There’s no guarantee of course, but in my experience referrals and/or fans of your blog are more likely to be suitable than a random stranger from an outsourcing site.
However, needs often dictate you look elsewhere, and outsourcing sites offer a great database of talented people. You just need to do the mining, filtering and testing to find the best of the best.
Here are some steps to take when hiring through outsourcing sites to help find a good customer service person.
- Review the job descriptions other people have used to hire a customer service person to get ideas for your own job template. See the Customer Support category in Elance for examples.
- Create a thorough description of the role: the time required, the hours of the day work is to be done, communication methods, skills and experience necessary, technology used, type of people they will have to support, pay scale, payment method (PayPal/Direct Deposit/Check?) – be as specific and detailed as you can.
- Submit the job to one or several outsourcing sites. I recommend you include a keyword or phrase within each job post that applicants must include in their application. This confirms they actually read the job details and helps filter away people who are not taking your position seriously.
- Trial several people at once on a test job. In the case of customer service, take three or four of the most common queries your business receives and give them to the applicants to respond to. The person who responds promptly, with the best responses, gets the job.
Look for the best communicators, because customer service is all about an ability to communicate and empathize with your customers.
You can repeat this process for every outsourcing job you have and ALWAYS, test multiple people at once so you can compare results and really see who is best.
If you don’t know how much to pay or what to expect from an outsourcing site, spend time prior to posting your first job ad exploring Elance or any of the resources and see what goes on. Find the jobs that get the most applications and follow their format. This is definitely not an area where you need to reinvent the wheel.
Treat Good People Well
When you find someone who fits well, do whatever you can to keep them happy. People are replaceable, but it’s a time consuming process to hire new staff and much easier to accommodate good people who already work for you.
In my experience, one of the best ways to keep staff happy is offer consistent work. Outsourcers are usually freelancers, going from job to job – an ambiguous income source for sure. If you can offer them stability through consistent hours, chances are they will reward you by staying loyal.
If business is going well, pay bonuses. Share the wealth and foster a team environment built on personal relationships, not just performance.
Business is business, and you have to look after your bottom line, but that doesn’t mean you can’t treat people well. You will always get the best work from people who care about you as a person first, not just how much you are paying them.
Encourage Free Thinking
What I really love from a person working for me, is when they do a better job than I could do and find ways to improve on the system I created.
When a person who works for me functions autonomously and improves my business at the same time, well, that is gold. It’s rare to find people who do this because it takes talent, skills and self assuredness, but when you find it, definitely encourage it. Don’t get stuck in “your way” of doing things, there is always room for improvement.
Customer service is an area that should eventually become entirely hands off for you. Once the system is in place and you have trained your support person, your job is done, at least until the next unusual circumstance comes up. If you find a good person they will be able to think on their feet, learn how you do things the way you like it, what sort of outcomes are desired for your customers, and be capable of solving a problem without even contacting you.
In short, a good customer service person will improve your business by helping to enhance your reputation. This can spread to become part of your public brand, encourage word of mouth and bring you new customers. If you get this wrong, then expect the opposite outcomes.
Clearly, finding a good customer service person is a top priority. Good luck.
Coming Up This Week: Vegas!
I hope you enjoyed the four part series on customer service and reputation management. This week I’m heading off to Las Vegas for the first time, followed by a road trip to Sedona and the Grand Canyon and ending with a stop off in Chicago on the way back to Toronto.