An alternative to annoying phone hotlines

Posted on 2020-11-29 by Nico Schottelius

The phone hotline

If you have a problem with your contract, if you want to have some information about your product or you just want to change some detail. By default, many companies nowadays offer something that we call "hotline". Or in other words: a voice based communication that allows to easily queue people.

The motivation and how it works is rather clear: there are a finite number of employees, each of which can only talk to one person at a time. So if the number of requests is more than number of employees, then you are stuck in the queue. However this post is not about the annoyance of waiting in a queue and enduring little quality, down sampled classic music pieces.

No, in this post I want to address a different fundamental problem: every time you call, you start a fresh conversation. You are likely to talk to a different person with a different background and probably not much knowledge of your situation. From a customer perspective you usually don't have any trail of previous communication. Actually, the company you are calling might record (and correctly announce it before) the call. However as a customer, you cannot easily record as well. Often it is also impossible to correspond with the company by email, so all written communication has to be sent in letters. In 2020!

Looking at it this way clearly shows how much power imbalance the innovation of the phone hotline is causing. But it could easily be different.

The classic way

You might or might not remember when companies used to be smaller and you would request a service with the counterpart in person. Both of you know each other and are fully aware of each other responsibilities ("I give you money, you give me a product or service") and also of the support process (A: "It did not work" - B: "I'll fix it!). Often the service provider was not far away, might even have been my neighbour. And it's really not good for our relationship if my neighbour does do what he promised to do.

As you can easily imagine this does not scale nor work easily in big companies where staff is rotated or fluctuating. The old value system of being responsible on a personal basis cannot easily be transferred. This also means that the classic way is much more expensive in terms of time and resources, but the responsibilities are enforced by social relationships.

Mixing the two?

So we could say that they are two extremes: one very personal, high quality, expensive and the other - well, you get the picture. Is it possible to improve the current situation and how can we get the best of the two worlds? Before answering this question, let me give you a short background of where we, ungleich, are and how we work, to show you how these approaches can naturally merge.

ungleich @ Digital Glarus

ungleich is based in Digital Glarus, a really old mountain valley in Switzerland. Majority of its buildings are very old (I'd guess most are built prior to 1900, many even much older), major businesses are industry, farming and also tourism. Many people here get up before 6 and start working latest by 8.

We from ungleich on the other hand are working in IPv6 only networks connected by our own fiber or with long range wifi links. Our working hours are very flexible, can be morning, day, night, week, weekend - we are free to choose. Our topics are very technical by nature.

These two approaches can contradict, but they can also work together very well. Like the two ways of communication.

Interestingly our experience here is that they can easily be combined: many people living in Digital Glarus have what we call an "old value system". If you offer a service towards people in Digital Glarus, you need to take responsibility and be trustworthy. Otherwise the word will get out within a few days and social enforcement will result in no more work for you. While this might sound cruel, you could actually call this "social quality assurance". Actually a bit similar to what we see in social media, just lower scale.

And how does this look like in reality? People here want and need to be convinced that you are trustworthy. You are having in person meetings (before corona), one person will make a protocol and then later send it for verification back to the other party. If something is noted incorrectly, the protocol will be amended and again verified.

This ensures that trust is built and also that both parties, the delivering company as well as the customer are playing on eye level.

Combining old values and new communication

Let's come back to the original problem: we shifted from high quality, individual services to mass produced in-transparent communication. Technically and organisational, it is not necessary to provide a worse product or service if it is mass produced. It just happens to be the case due to technical limitations in the beginning.

So let's go back to the hotline problem: we advocate a simple change that costs little for companies to implement but restores trust and quality in communication:

Every support hotline should be, by default, accompanied by a text based ticketing system that sends users a protocol and let's them interact with you on a text basis.

So how does this work? The agent in the call center will make notes of the phone call - they are already done nowadays, but unavailable for you. Some of these notes might be internal ("The customer does not know the difference between the power button and the reset button - always advise to push the button on the right") and are not for sharing. However, the key points of the conversation must be sent to the customer. This way, as a customer I can easily react and correct statements that have been incorrectly recorded. With a trail.

Furthermore in a later stage, as a customer, I also have a trail and the ability to respond to the previous conversation by text, giving me the opportunity to add to the trail. And to built trust on the way.

Obviously, our suggestion here is not rocket science. In fact, it is a very easy, natural and cost effective measure to be more transparent and to built mutual trust.

Some companies might try to argue that it is too complex or too expensive to implement such a system. To prevent that argument from being true, we have added a Hosted Support System to our product list. Nobody needs to get it from us, but anybody can. And thus there is no excuse, not to have it implemented. It is a very similar approach to not have an excuse for not having IPv6, but that is a story for another day...