Article: Bob McElwain

The Small Business Library

May 25, 2000


Many business have gone to the elevator-music mode in answering their support lines. You dial, get a recording, and get to guess which is the best button to push. Guess wrong, and you get to hear more music. You may get a recording: "Our average wait time is 20 minutes." This shows you what they think of your time. Is this a good business practice?

Lots of companies must believe so, for many have implemented such a system with a vengeance. They appear to be doing all possible to avoid dealing with customer support. They seem to believe the name of the game is more sales. Period. They continue to erect ever greater barriers to block out unwanted pleas for help.

The Online Parallel

Online, the situation is often worse. As a customer, email may be the only contact you have. If a company representative hits the Delete key to avoid a reply, you're dead. Then there are filters. A company I had been doing business with for three years apparently took offense to a couple of questions I asked, and filtered out my email address. There is no longer a mailing address or phone number on the site.

The impact of such strategies on large companies may be uncertain, but they will quickly kill a small one. Web surfers are getting smarter. And while each day brings a flood of newcomers, they learn fast.

Go For The Gold!

There is an enormous potential in all this for small businesses. Simply by providing truly great support, you can improve your position effectively and generate a much greater flow of repeat business.

  • Email

    Answer it quickly, completely, but succinctly. As with product, over-deliver. That is, seek to anticipate subsequent questions and include the necessary information right now. And do it all cheerfully, while demonstrating strong interest in the needs of your customer.

    If you are working a day job or simply haven't time for this, hire someone to do it. Spam will disappear for you. Requests for information or directions will be handled appropriately. And you will receive only key messages that require your personal response.

    Before discarding this idea as nonsense, give it a try. When you are able to get an answer to a customer thirty minutes after their message was sent, you are at some point going to get a prompt reply that begins with, "Wow. That was quick." You will become a believer when an order follows minutes later.

  • An 800 Number Is A Must

    An 800 number for orders has been required for years. One for support is not common in small businesses. The mode seems to be to let the customer pay if they want help. It's a bad move. Use your 800 order number for support as well. If you need to keep the order line available, add a second 800 number. Either way, make sure a real live person answers promptly.

    Again, if you work a day job, hire someone to take calls. A professional service is not required. Check with your neighbors and friends. Look for someone who would like to make a few extra bucks without leaving home.

  • Provide 24-Hour Support

    People shop the Web at all hours, if for no other reason than differing time zones. Your 800 support number should be available on every page, particularly your order form.

    If you are just getting started, you won't have many calls. Consider taking the off-hours calls yourself. Even let the late night calls ring through into your bedroom. This may seem a step too far, but it will demonstrate the need for this level of support. In time you will decide to hire out this service.

  • Q & As Help

    A great way to cut down on support requests is to create and maintain an up to date Q&As section on your website. While many sites have such a page, it is often inadequate and/or old stuff. A support page that is well organized and easy to navigate is a real plus. Many visitors prefer to find answers themselves, rather than make a call or send an email.

    Every support question becomes a candidate for a Q & A. Given even one repeat, get it up there.

  • Shopping Guidance

    If you offer a variety of products, visitors may become confused. Set up a page of suggestions, and comparisons if appropriate. And include that 800 number with good answers when the phone is picked up.

  • Shipping:

    Offer at least UPS. Many are turning against the US Post Office. Priority Mail boxes often arrive squished. More and more people now live in housing developments in which they must go to a central site to pick up their mail. A package too large means a trip to the post office. The same is so for rural delivery. If it won't fit in the curb-side mail box, I get that ominous little bit of yellow paper and get to drive eleven miles to pick up the package. UPS comes to my door, and does so even with a foot of snow on the mile-long driveway.

  • Guarantee:

    You've got to give one, and deliver as promised, else the dreaded chargeback. So make it a good one. 90 days at least.

    If you ship product, consider including a USP return voucher. It costs you very little unless the product is returned. And if you are getting many returns, something is wrong elsewhere, as in over-selling, under-delivering, and so forth.

Sure It Costs
Price does not sell. You probably can safely raise prices to cover costs of support. But increased sales of themselves are likely to cover any additional costs. Include the benefits of such support in the first fold on your home page. And remind of it throughout the site, as in posting that 800 number.

When a customer demands help right now, provide it. If you don't, chances are someone else will do so. They'll get the sale, and the customer. You lose.

Article by Bob McElwain, Web marketing and consulting since 1993. For Newbie-Friendly Site Stuff, subscribe to STAT News. Need a few extra bucks? Or a lot? It's easy to do! Go to