Establishing a Customer Service Department

A primer for setting up your own customer service department.

Customer service, at its core, is ensuring that your customers are happy with your products and company so they will continue doing business with you. Seems simple, right? Yet it’s becoming increasingly complex as the responsibilities of customer service change, the number of customer service channels expand and customer expectations increase. When you consider that 82% of consumers have stopped doing business with a company because of bad customer service, you begin to understand the scope of the issue. Poor customer service ultimately means lost customers and lost revenue.  Even worse, given the information sharing tools available today, unhappy customers can impact the choices of prospective customers more than ever before.

The good news?  Customer service still comes down to prompt, honest, empathetic communication with your customers, and even small companies can do it well.  The question is – how?  We are tackling this question on our Focus On: Customer Service series, where we’ll explore planning for, implementing and scaling customer service for your subscription business.  The full series includes:

The Establishing a Customer Service Department  primer below provides you with the details you need to consider in setting up your own customer service department.

Establishing a Customer Service Department

Whether you’re new to running customer service or at a growing company that is just building out a formal customer service department, preparing a customer service plan for your company should start with what you already know. Like any journey, the secret to creating an effective Customer Service department is starting with a compass and a map – and refining as you move forward.

Understand What You Need and Want from Customer Service

Answer these six questions to understand how you needs and philosophical approach for setting-up your customer service team.

1. How accessible can you be?  As a sole proprietor, or even with a small staff, there’s no way you can offer 24-7 response, respond to emails within minutes or always answer the phone.  Larger organizations may need to grapple with specific support skill sets, such as technical expertise or subject-matter knowledge, language and time-zone issues. So, before you begin to staff up, ask yourself what service level you can offer to be responsive to customers, produce your product and leave time to sleep?

2. Who are you providing Customer Service to? Most subscription businesses sit in the middle of a complex network of subscribers, gifters/non-user buyers, advertisers, sponsors, and investors.  Each of these audiences will need help – often very different kinds of help.  And it’s wise to include the press, analysts and agencies in your plan, too. Will they be using all or one particular communications channel that you mapped out earlier?

3. What sorts of issues will your customers have?  Some common, subscription-oriented customer-service challenges include:

      • Inability to access subscription/didn’t receive subscription box
      • Billing inconsistencies (double-billed/credit card billed after cancellation)
      • Gift subscription not delivered
      • Forgot ID and/or password
      • Forgot security question
      • Unsure how to comment, share or like an article

4. What is the solution to each of these issues?  Having well-thought answers to your most common questions at the ready will save you time and effort when you need it most.

5. How do your subscribers define good service?Many definitions are universal, such as prompt refunds when overbilling occurs, or being treated pleasantly and offered a sincere, “I’m sorry” when problems pop up. But your customers may prefer text messaging to email, live chat to telephone calls or require live help access on the weekend, versus a Monday-through-Friday schedule. Establish a customer service standard that meets the known or estimated needs of your market, and adjust as you come to learn more about them.

6. What automation do you have in place to help?  Are you using a live-chat or Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system already? Have a contract with a call center? Take an inventory of the response and routing options you have at your disposal today.

Map External Touchpoints to Your Company

We recommend an audit of all touchpoints and identify who is getting in contact with your company, and how they are doing so. Depending on its size, you should revisit this on at least an annual basis. What channels (e.g. phone, email or social media) is the public reaching out to you on, and in what volume?  Are there ways your customers will contact you in the future that you need to think through? Are there ways you do NOT want customers contacting you?  To help you get started, figure #1 below shows the number of ways and different types of inquiries you should be thinking about as you map this out for your company.

Creating Your Customer Service Response Plan

There is no one right way to set up Customer Service. Budget, scale and volume of your business, industry specific requirements, how your subscribers or members prefer to interact with your business (e.g. online, mobile, social) and even how quickly you need to respond (minutes, hours, days) all determine the best plan and approach specifically for your company.

To create a customer service response plan, take the information you identified on running your customer service function as well as your map of how people are contacting you.

It’s important to note that this plan should be company-wide, not just for your customer service team. Having a company-wide blueprint avoids mishandled customer service inquiries that result in poor customer service and an angry customer or partner, potential lost revenue, or a “helpful” employee unwittingly providing information to an investor, reporter or even customer that you want to keep confidential.

Your company’s customer service response plan will include an availability schedule, issues map, executive issues escalation map, and a repository of reference docs for those who are handling the inquiries, as well as links to any resources such as pricing, policy guidelines and escalation contacts.

1. Identify Common Problems and Their Resolutions

Once you have identified how you want to run your customer service functions and have documented how customers, partners, media and others are reaching out to you, you are ready to create the customer service blueprint for your company.

Essentially what’s needed is a combination of your common questions and answers into a fact sheet that will become the customer service blueprint for everyone in your company.

Think through how quickly you want each touch point ideally handled:

  • Who or what team in your company is the “owner” for following up?  For example, who do media inquiries go to and what are your expectations for that follow-up?
  • Who handles questions from potential customers who may subscribe or join your service and how quickly do you expect to get back to them?
  • If a visitor or customer has a technical issue, who does that issue go to, how to you respond to the customer, how to you address or fix that technical issue and ultimately close it out?
  • Is there a difference between the communications channels in the follow-up that you need to plan for?  For example, should inbound phone calls be treated differently from email, which are treated differently than social media?
  • Are there ways your customers will contact you in the future that you need to think through?

Your company customer service blueprint also should have links to any resources such as pricing, and include policy guidelines and escalation contacts.

Here is an example of some issues and items that would be included in a customer service company blueprint:

customer service issues

2. List of Executive Issues

In addition to the frequently-asked questions, you should also make a list of those instances when a call should be routed directly to an executive.  Depending on the size of your business, this may be the owner or CEO, the legal department or head of PR or investor relations.  Some examples of these questions include:

  • Call from a board member or investor
  • Press inquiry
  • Service of subpoena or other legal notice, or contact from an attorney representing a client against your business
  • Accusation of plagiarism, fraud or other illegal activity
  • Threat to personal safety of the customer service representative, other employees, or the company as a whole

3. Availability Schedule

This is a simple spreadsheet of who will cover what media at what times, and how that person can be contacted if a customer inquiry comes in another part of the company.  There are certainly tools you can leverage as your team gets bigger, but a simple document outlining who is covering what and when works whether your company is two people, one hundred or more.

We recommend you set up:

  • Who is covering what by inbound channel (e.g., phone, social media or email)
  • What is the expected service level (SL) of that channel (e.g. goal of how fast your response is)
  • Specifications for the types of customers


4. Repository of Materials

Make sure your customer service team has access to the most recent technical specifications, policy guidelines and special offers by centralizing these materials in one place. Whether that includes binders on a shelf, files in Dropbox or a sophisticated Business Information (BI) system, appoint someone on the team to make sure the repository is current and complete.

Activating Your Customer Service Plan – 12 Best Practices

With your customer service plan now in place, make sure your team is following these foundational 12 customer service best practices, if they are not doing so already:

  1. Make sure your website makes it easy for customers to get help.  Your help phone number and email should be visible everywhere on your website, invoices and shipping materials if needed.
  2. Be transparent about limited availability, or risk disappointing customers. Communicate hours of operation to manage expectations that you won’t have customer service reps available 24/7.
  3. Set up multiple emails such as “info@” or “helpdesk@” or “media@” other email based on source, issue or destination that delivers right to one (or more if you have a larger team) group inbox, so you can prioritize answering.
  4. Establish an FAQ page with answers to the questions you already know might come up. Make sure your customer service team is pulling from an internal FAQ and answers list so your company is providing consistent answers to questions and saving valuable time.
  5. Make sure calls go straight to voicemail when your offices are closed and set a different greeting. Leveraging a good cloud-based phone system makes this easier.
  6. Set extended-absence email replies when you will be unavailable to respond within a day.
  7. Consider setting an ongoing “extended absence” greeting on your “Help@” or “Info@” email address, with the reply, “Thank you for your message. ABC Subscription will get back to you within 1 business day.”
  8. Invest in a toll-free number for subscribers who might be using a land line.
  9. Expect and plan to answer the phone as many customers still believe it to be the quickest way to get an issue resolved.
  10. Set up automated responses to customers who fill out forms on your website. These are easily set up via most Forms plugins, and ensure that your subscriber knows you’ve received their question.
  11. Establish and maintain a “Do Not Send” list. Failure to respect DNS requests could land you on the bad side of the CAN-SPAM folks, hindering delivery not only of marketing but business emails as well.
  12. Maintain a “bug” log. Log all requests from customers including bug fixes, pricing questions and ideas for enhancement. These are excellent drivers of new product development, pricing and refund policies.

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