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This is the third part in a four part series of articles on customer service.
In part one we looked at a example from Starbucks customer service, where a simple free beverage voucher left a lasting positive impression on me. You can read this article here – Reputation Management: Starbucks Offers A Simple Lesson In Good Customer Service.
In part two I walked you through the typical “growing pains” of a solo entrepreneur running an Internet business attempting to deliver personal customer service and how often as a result of success, things start to fall apart. You can read this article here – Growing Pains: How To Manage Customer Service As A One Person Enterprise.
In this next part of the series, as promised, I’m going to give you a behind the scenes tour of how I handled customer service through various different Internet projects I’ve owned in the past eight years. My system today is far from perfect, but it’s definitely much better than what it was. My current set-up allows me to have time freedoms and still look after my most important constituents (most of the time anyway!).
To fully put this into perspective we have to take a trip down memory lane way back to the beginning of my Internet business timeline (still one of the most popular article series on this blog and overdue for an update to add the last couple of years).
My first true success online was my popular Magic card game site, MTGParadise.com started in the late nineties. I created that site as a true newbie. I learned how to FTP, code HTML, create basic graphics and spent countless nights changing my website.
To start with I wrote content for the website myself and learned some basic Internet marketing techniques to bring in traffic, which pretty much amounted to link exchanges and regular participation in popular Magic newsgroups (this was a LONG time ago, back in the Usenet heyday when newsgroups were the Internet).
My site grew slowly, but with no benchmarks to really compare against I was happy enough with my few hundred daily visitors, adding another ten or twenty new readers per month, treating the project purely as a hobby.
Eventually I started to receive guest articles from other people who played the card game, which helped lesson my writing load. I spent most of my time back then struggling to make HTML do what I wanted to do and did not write nearly as much as I do now as a blogger and information product creator.
My Magic site didn’t become a big success until I added a forum to it. I made the decision on a whim because Magic players, at least in Australia, were used to using email newsgroups to communicate with and spent the rest of their time reading static websites. There wasn’t a forum out there at the time for Australia magic players because they were content with newsgroups, which had a critical mass of users.
I didn’t exactly see this as a business opportunity at the time. What I was interested in was playing with the forum script and seeing if I could get it to work (I was a real glutton for punishment back then, wasting time trying to make technology work when I wasn’t a coder). I certainly did not expect what would happen next.
One of the reasons I enjoyed Magic had nothing to do with playing the game. What I loved was to trade cards. As an entrepreneur at heart, sometimes I preferred the act of performing commerce rather than playing the game, so I did see the potential for my forum to become a hub for card trading. I just didn’t expect it to become THE card trading site for Australian Magic game players – but it did.
If you can create a site that is based on user generated content fueled by a strong hook – a reason for people to come back to the site every day – well, then you have struck gold in Internet business terms. Many multi-million dollar web business today are based on this principle (think eBay, Facebook, YouTube).
My Magic site did not become a multi-million dollar business, but it did carve out it’s own little corner in a very specific niche. As a result my traffic grew to over a thousand visitors a day, which I joked was probably the entire online population of Magic players in Australia (it’s a popular card game, but Australia doesn’t have a large population). I made my first real online income thanks to advertising sponsors on MTGParadise.com.
If you are interested to learn more about how I made money with my Magic site, see – How to make money from your website using advertising.
Once my forum began to take off I suddenly found myself in charge of a little business. I won’t go into detail because I’ve discussed my days running my Magic site in many of the early archives of this blog (see the Articles page for highlights). Over the years I invested serious time into my Magic site, including running an online card store at one stage. It became the focus of my working life outside of finishing university.
As a result of my site’s success I found myself for the first time, running out of time when it came to dealing with all the demands placed on me online. I wore “all the hats” when it came to my early web projects (I couldn’t justify the financial cost of hiring help – to be honest, even when I could I still didn’t – it took a while to learn the value of hiring help), so I was upgrading scripts, writing content, marketing, handling sponsors, moderating forums, replying to emails – basically doing everything myself.
This became an impossible range of activities for one person to do and for the very first time I realized that my Internet business was not really a business – it was a job – and something had to change.
This all happened to me way before Rich Schefren released the Internet Business Manifesto and before I heard of the E-Myth, two seminal resources on developing business systems (the Manifesto is particularly relevant for Internet business entrepreneurs who are still struggling to do everything themselves).
One concept I learned around this time had a profound impact and started me down the path towards the customer service and overall business structure I use today – The 80/20 rule. It was thanks to grasping this principle that I realized I had to find ways to free up my time to do what I did best. This made sense to me not just because it could help my business grow so I could make more money, but also because what I really wanted was to spend less time on jobs I didn’t like. The 80/20 rule could deliver both outcomes.
If you have never heard of the 80/20 Rule, please read my primer here – What Is The 80/20 Rule And Why It Will Change Your Life
Chasing freedom has always been the core motivational driver for me, money is just a tool that helps to liberate that freedom. If you are not careful, money can have the opposite effect, reducing your freedoms because you don’t have enough of it or you become addicted to chasing it even when you have more than enough.
Change didn’t occur immediately, but I started to see where I had already made some smart decisions that had freed up time and I began to look for more opportunities to “do less”.
Outsourcing is a term thrown around a lot and for the purpose of this article I’m going to apply it very loosely.
Outsourcing is the act of having other people do things for you.
There’s always some form of value exchange in every outsourcing relationship, perhaps for money, traffic, exposure or contacts. Fundamentally we are talking about people doing things for your business so you don’t have to do them, in exchange for something they want.
The first time I did this was when I recruited writers for my Magic site. I needed content, they wanted a little fame from writing about a subject they loved. With the success of my forums I quickly “hired” moderators and like thousands of successful forums around the world today, there were eager members who would gladly spend time moderating in exchange for an increase to their status and just because they want to help out in the community.
Outsourcing these two tasks made my life a little easier. It was because of this experience, my newly formed 80/20 attitude, my ongoing study of the what made for a successful online business (one that granted the owner certain freedoms), that I looked for new projects based on a business model that leveraged outsourcing.
As a result, my next successful project, BetterEdit.com, was structured to rely on outsourcing, in this case, a proofreading business that delivered a service entirely provided by other people.
BetterEdit, although built on the skills of a team of professional editors, still depended on me to provide customer support. Although I was becoming better at outsourcing and freeing up my time to focus on my core strengths and tasks that I enjoyed, I still invested a lot of time on what we have now well and truly established as a core marketing function – communicating with your clients and providing superior customer service.
It would take many years before I finally bit the bullet and invited a good friend, Angela, to work with me and take over the customer service role at BetterEdit. Angela was trained in my systems and slowly over a period of months replaced me as the main source of customer support and continued to do a great job until I sold the business (and still does a great job for the new owner).
This experience was a real revelation for me. Seeing that someone could actually replace me and perform as good and sometimes better customer service than I did was a quantum leap in my attitude to business outsourcing. Having people write content and moderate your forums is one thing, but letting someone inside the nerve center of your business and have complete control over your customers, is another step altogether.
This one change eventually led to a rapid business growth period as I began to take on people to help me with all aspects of my Internet empire. From installing scripts to designing graphics, managing servers and creating templates, to writing copy – I had people helping with everything.
I could go on about how this change helped me finally reach a stable six figure online income, but the focus today is customer service and perhaps most importantly, as a result of my experience with Angela, I realized that it is possible to almost entirely outsource your customer service requirements.
One of the main reasons I hired Angela to help with BetterEdit was so I could devote myself even more to blogging. I had sold MTGParadise.com several years prior and with BetterEdit no longer requiring significant attention thanks to Angela’s help, my core day-to-day activities focused on what I really wanted to do – blog.
Bloggers are known to give a lot more than they receive in return. The whole concept of successful blogging is built on a foundation of free content. As a result of this there’s an expectation that a blogger’s time is free too, so as you become more successful more people come to you asking for a slice of your time to help them with whatever they are focused on.
As my blog grew in exposure I found myself unable to keep up with all the people emailing me asking for help or a link to their website. Even responding to comments was challenging since I always had the philosophy of “create new content” before doing anything else regarding my blog. Some queries were left unanswered as I busied myself creating my next post (actually I’m doing this right now – creating a new blog post instead of responding to the emails sitting in my inbox – though I will get to them eventually!).
Around this time I also began buying websites, starting with a second blog, SmallBusinessBranding.com. Over the next few years I would buy and sell several different websites and chronicle the experiences on my blog, creating more exposure (see – How To Invest In Websites In Your Spare Time – as a good place to start if you are interested in buying and selling websites for profit).
Throughout this period everything I was working on was growing and bringing me into contact with more and more people. By then I had well and truly lost my ability to respond to every person who contacted me and just like the typical scenario I painted in the preceding article on customer service growing pains, my customer service performance was a victim of my business success.
It was time to make some changes to my customer service system, and I began by filtering the messages that came through to me.
If you run a popular website or blog then you already know from experience that many of the contacts you receive come from people either too lazy, apathetic or just so new to the subject, that they can’t figure out how to find the answers they want by themselves. In their eyes, it’s much easier to just send an email to a blogger they come across who already offers so much great free info, even when the answers to their questions are already in your blog. They want the easy solution rather than doing the work to find it.
While you want to be able to help the people who are genuine, the majority of people are “tire kickers”, at least in my experience. They want something from you and are too lazy to figure it out on their own. Usually these people are not capable of action, so when you give them the answer, they don’t bother following through on that either – they just waste your time.
What you need is a system that requires people to take an extra step or two in order to ask their question. The tire kickers are too lazy to do this – they only have enough energy to send an email, anything more and it’s too much for them. This helps to filter away the people who will likely waste your time.
It was around this time that I began studying some of the materials of Mike Filsaime, in particular his Butterfly Marketing package.
One concept that I really liked was his system for handling communication with his customers and the general public.
Mike set up a website called ReplytoMike.com, which acts as a central point of contact for his business. It’s a very simple page that guides people to his help desk, his guestbook and provides instructions for what to do depending on your reason for contacting him (for example, joint venture requests).
What I loved about Mike’s system was it allowed you to handle most types of queries with a tailored option – it could filter people for you. If a person wants to give you some feedback, they can leave a comment in the guestbook. If they are a customer or prospect they can query your help desk (which of course is manned by an outsourced customer service person).
I used Mike’s set-up as inspiration for my own support system. I went and bought myself ReplytoYaro.com and created a simple webpage, which I still use today. Incidentally, now might be a good time to go see if ReplytoYOURNAME.com is available.
I decided to make use of the forum I had already set-up for my blog readers at www.blogtrafficschool.com/forums/ and created a section to function as a guestbook. The guestbook is for any person who wants to pass on their thanks and doesn’t require a reply. The added benefit of this method is you create a public archive of all guestbook comments, which make for great testimonials. You can see my guestbook here.
Most of the queries I get are people asking for help or feedback on their personal project. I don’t want to let these queries go without a reply of some kind because I like to be accessible, but I can’t let this get in the way of my core activities like writing new blog posts, product creation and supporting my existing customers. I also prefer to help more than one person whenever I offer advice, so a personal email reply is not a good solution.
When I create content I want it to go to the public to help more than just the person asking the question, so again I decided to use the forum as the main question and answer support group.
Whenever an email is sent asking a question people are guided to ReplytoYaro.com and eventually the forums (sometimes the forums directly). What’s great about this is that most tire kicker types won’t go to the trouble of creating a forum user account to ask their question. The people that do, are usually genuine and have a good question, since they are prepared to put in a little effort.
Forums are a great solution for fielding general questions from the public because often if you can’t personally reply, other forum members will help out. As a nice side effect, you increase participation in your forum and if you have ever tried to grow a popular forum, you know how hard that is! (See this article for more forum marketing tips – How to Build a Popular Forum Community in 5 Steps.)
I much prefer to build a community of people who can support each other, which frees up my time to support the most important people to my business – my paying customers. It’s nice to be able to help people for free too (that’s what blogging is about), but there are time limitations you can’t avoid.
You need to prioritize different groups of people based on your relationship with them, but be careful not to ignore any group because a “free” question you take the time to attend to can convince that person to become a paying customer. It’s a fine balance, but with a simple system like my ReplytoYaro.com page combined with a forum, you can get it done.
How To Become Friends With An Expert
As an aside – and I’ve said this before – if you ever want personal contact with an expert, a good option is to buy their product. As a customer you are immediately elevated into a higher status group in their world, which makes it more likely they will respond to your queries (no guarantees of course).
Sometimes it’s worth buying products just to help foster a relationship with a person you want to know, especially if that can lead to contact with people who can help you make money – like joint venture partners.
I started using an extension for Firefox and Thunderbird called Clippings, that let me create snippets of text I could use as templates.
I created a template response to reply to any personal queries sent via email that directed people to go to the forums or ReplytoYaro.com. Most people I reply to in this manner never make it to the forums, they just disappear, hopefully because they found an answer in my blog, but unfortunately more likely because they are too lazy to set up a forum account.
This one change significantly reduced the amount of time I spent responding to general query emails. All that was left was a way to promptly support my paying customers.
After divesting myself of BetterEdit leaving me to focus only on blogging, my next project was BlogMastermind.com, the first time I would release an information product of my own creation. This also meant I would have a new group of paying customers and this time, with my choice to fully embrace outsourcing, I wanted to be sure that I used a system for customer support that other people could run for me.
I decided to install a help desk script, which I would direct my members to if they had any issues regarding Blog Mastermind. Initially I used the help desk script Perldesk as my help desk, staffed only by me to start with, although that quickly changed.
The help desk acted as a filter just like the forum. Many people decide filling out a help desk form is too much for them, so queries tend to only come from genuine customers or people who are committed enough to take a minute or two to get in touch with me.
The help desk was recently switched over to a simple Gmail email account. This was done because Gmail is brilliant. It has all the features you need to run a help desk style support system, can filter spam better than anything I know, contains flagging so you can assign queries to different people and have multiple support staff maintain the one account, is globally accessible and perhaps best of all, it is free.
I invited Angela back to help run my customer service email for my blogging business and she’s been great as always. If you have contacted me recently then chances are you have been in contact with Angela. She makes use of clipping templates to quickly deal with common queries and I look after anything that she can’t deal with, which is around 20% of the total queries we receive.
Whether you use a help desk script or Gmail account is up to you. There are pros and cons to both options, so make the choice based on your needs. If you want to research different help desk scripts, try the PHP Resource Archive: Customer Support Scripts.
I realize I’ve covered a lot in this post and intertwined it with my story to explain how things evolved. As a result, you might be confused, so to help clarify, here’s a brief breakdown of how my customer support system currently operates.
In some places, such as inside my membership sites, members are directed directly to the customer support email account.
This is a basic breakdown of how things work. None of this is set in stone. I still personally reply to a lot of email, especially when it’s important that it’s me sending the message (for example – certain customer issues and to maintain relationships with key people).
What this system does well is filter away people who are time wasters and allows the more common and system related queries (e.g. where’s this resource? my download link didn’t work, etc) to be quickly dealt with without involving me.
As a result, I receive only about 50 new emails per day, most of which are Internet marketing newsletters or spam, which did not require a reply. I only receive about 2-5 emails I have to respond to each day and most of the time, unless timing is critical, I do not reply until the end of the week.
This is a dramatic difference to about a year ago, where there was an ever present 100+ emails in my inbox that I struggled to keep on top of.
This system has helped free up time so I can comfortably write blog posts, create product content and support my paying students, without worrying about everything else falling apart. I would definitely not be able to travel as I have this year, if it was not for this system.
What I haven’t been able to do is stay active replying to every blog comment, read and comment on other blogs and participate in forums, maintain social network profiles and leverage social media. Some of these things I used to do more often, but they have dropped in priority, while others just take too much time to keep up to date with.
It all comes down to prioritization and the 80/20 rule in the end. My system is not perfect, but it’s granted me the most important thing – freedom of choice and the option to spend most of my time doing what I like and still build a solid Internet business at the same time. I hope you can apply much of what you learned in this article to help you achieve the same thing.
None of this would work of course, without the help of Angela. Your customer service person or people have to possess a few key skills, both technical and interpersonal. It’s not a position you can fill with just anybody.
In my next article, the last in this series on customer service, I will review your options for how to find a good customer service person and emphasize why this should be one of the first parts of your business that you outsource.
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