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Should Your Web Startup Avoid Providing Telephone Support?

There are many apparently very important web businesses which don’t provide customer support. At least not the expensive telephone variety of support. Facebook or Amazon for example. Even consumer websites do provide telephone support when they deal with more urgent and financially significant transactions though. Services such as airline ticket or even theater ticket sales. Admittedly they use the airline’s support number during travel, in the same way as retail store travel agents did. Another example on the consumer front is Intuit’s Turbo Tax product which again, because it is a more important, finds itself providing telephone support. Some of these services are so important that customers are paying for the service unlike many well know websites which succeed through scale but have very little revenue per user.

It is no coincidence that the paid for services such as travel agents or tax preparation services provide telephone support. If it is important enough to pay for, then most people are going to want recourse to a phone number as a last resort. If the service is free then they don’t expect somebody to be paid to talk to them about it but, particularly if they have paid a significant fee, they expect support to be available.

So maybe startups shouldn’t be shying away from businesses which require telephone support. Maybe these needs are an indicator of the types of service that people really care about. Enough to make a phone call.

If a service is used in day to day business, such as a reservation system, order taking system, or other client facing website then there needs to be some kind of support if the client’s business can’t function without it. And that is the kind of thing they are going to actually want to pay for. They are going to be concerned if it is free. The reason Facebook or Twitter don’t need a support phone number is because they aren’t part of anybody’s business workflow.

Back in the days of packaged applications being installed on the client’s machine the client was in control. The user was part of the release process and chose when to install a new version. They waited until they believed a business benefit would result and there was a convenient time to incur the learning curve. They chose to not make changes at month or quarter end or while staff were on vacation. With software as a service the service provider is in control. As a result if an issue occurs there is a stronger need to communicate and an increased value to support in the software as a service model. The connected nature of the applications means that the service provider is needed to rectify any issue. The client is in a very vulnerable position unless they pay.

There are applications which are very generic and as a result don’t require telephone support. The assumption is that the provider is managing their release process effectively. Nobody needs to phone a Google like company to tell them that their home page is down, because if it were their monitoring would have picked up on the redundant components as they failed and obviously everybody else would have the same problem.

The same problem. When it is a different problem — things change. As services become more specific to an industry or integration points with other providers multiply the chance of an issue being unique to a small client group increases and the needs of the client to have a customer service relationship and to pay to have influence over the product increase. They will wish to even control the release of the software in use. Something that is occasionally provided on consumer products but is the norm for business applications.

To be rapidly scalable the sales process needs to be light which is why startups and their investors tend to focus on consumer products (b2c) but there isn’t a reason to avoid needing to provide support it is just that the managing of the support at scale is a significant part of the business. When it comes to b2b applications then the more widely used applications such as Excel, CRM systems or Quickbooks obviously have more growth potential and a better chance of a rapid multiple, but there are many very viable businesses where much of what the client is paying for is the support processes, and partnership over the product release process. In the extreme cases leading to visibility into the product roadmap but more commonly solutions which allow a selection of modules and defined version points.

The habit of hiding in the world of rapid unannounced releases and no direct client interaction is convenient, scalable and maximizes the technical component of the business, but it may be avoiding the software applications that clients are actually willing to pay money for and that would be a missed opportunity.

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