Customer Success

Pick Up The [D**n] Phone'

Jason Lemkin

We’ve talked quite a bit on SaaStr about Customer Success, and there’s a very specific reason for it.  It’s one of the most non-obvious drivers of revenue growth in Years 3, 4, 5 and beyond of your SaaS start-up.  More on that here.  Customer Success can feel like a cost center in Year 1 (and indeed, it is), but by about 18 months out after your first 10 paying customers … it will be your largest profit center.  So invest in it!  Early.  And get it right.

What we haven’t really talked about is Customer Support.  Basic, reactive, customer support.  Solve the customer problem.  Try to.  Pretend to.  Etc.

mimirogersAnd we won’t talk a lot about the nuts and bolts of how to process tickets, etc.  SaaStr is about growing revenue faster with less stress.

But there are a few things in customer support that you can do that will clearly move the needle, but that may be slightly non-obvious.


Let’s step back.  Almost everyone not out of a B2C/e-commerce background is going to tell you phone support is a terrible use of time and resources.

Your customer support folks will tell you:

  • It takes 10x longer to resolve a voice call than a trouble ticket.
  • I can’t filter phone calls.  I can filter tickets.  So tickets actually are like 50x more efficient than picking up the phone.
  • I just don’t have the time in the day.  I already spend 12 hours just responding to tickets and in-bound emails from existing customers and all the rest of the drama.

All 3 are true.

And your sales folks will tell you:

  • Oy.  Any in-bound call just sucks up 20 minutes of my time with d-u-m-b questions.  I could be doing a demo to a true opportunity.
  • 95% of whomever calls in never buys.
  • 95% of the rest are single seat customers I don’t want anyway.

All 3 are true.

callcenterhellSo yes, viewed narrowly, picking up the phone is one of the lowest ROI things you can possibly do.

But, that’s wrong.

Here are three things we know that are also true:

  • Customers will forgive problems much more often if they can get someone on the phone.  We all panic less, and feel better, when we reach someone competent.  And at the other end of the spectrum, we never forgive apps if no one responds to a ticket for 24 hours.  Do more here, customers will forgive you, and bond to you.  Do less — and they’ll never forgive you.
  • Sales prospects will believe you are much more professional, and real, if someone picks up the phone.  That’s what great companies do.  Even if the person that picks up the phone can’t really help close the deal.
  • You will build true attitudinal (vs. mere behavioral) loyalty if your customers and prospects can talk to a real human.  Even if it’s not the perfect or right human.  And attitudinal loyalty is key to building a true brand, second-order revenue, and an in-bound lead machine.  Customers that are merely behaviorally loyal, or even — prisoners — don’t churn in a day.  But they don’t buy more than they absolutely have to, they don’t upgrade, they don’t take the upsell call.  And they churn at a much higher rate.  More on that here and here.

Ok so how do you do this?  How do you resolve the seeming paradox that picking up the phone is extremely expensive and distracting, and time consuming — but also one of the cheapest and simplest investments you can make in customer satisfaction?

There’s no perfect answer, but you can do this:

  • Screen Shot 2015-07-24 at 5.28.45 PMAt least outsource it for now, with a script.  Make sure someone ALWAYS picks up the phone, even if for now, the answer has to be “That’s a great question.  Let me have sales give you a ring back later today” or “Oy.  Sorry to hear things aren’t working right for you.  That’s a new one for me. I’m going to create a ticket right now!”  You can outsource this with a good script, for the cost of just a few dollars per call.  It’s not great if they can’t solve the problem.  But it’s much better for someone to answer the phone, even if they can’t solve the problem.  Than if no one answers the phone at all.  You know this.
  • Budget for it.  Assume you’re going to get X calls per day, and budget for it.  This sounds simple, but people don’t do it this way.  And if you can, measure your customer satisfaction afterwards.  I bet you it goes up.  And I bet you, measured over 9-12 months, it pay for itself in decreased churn or at least, increased Net Promoter Scores.
  • Segment it, when you can.  The one thing that will kill you is taking phone calls from free users.  So probably, don’t expose phone support to folks that don’t pay anything.  But expose it to everyone that has a paid seat (everyone), and everyone that might buy.
  • It works itself out with customer success.  Once your engine is running, this works itself out with customer success.  Because the customers than know their CSM, will just reach out directly to their CSM.  So the burdens here aren’t as great as you think.  The larger the customer, the most CSM dedication they’ll get.

My main point is here is picking up the phones is one place where you definitely should not listen to your team 🙂  Your interests are not aligned.

They don’t want to pick up the phone.  That makes sense.

But you do.  Make it happen.  Especially because while it does have expense associated with it in the short term … It’s easy.  It’s simple.  It’s a quick improvement you can make right now, this month.  You don’t need any engineering team, any new features.  It will make things better, and give you a lift over the medium term.

It pays for itself in your brand, your NPS, your customer happiness.

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Published on July 27, 2015


  1. Jason,

    +1 on this whole article, and a couple of other things I’d like to point out as I’ve had this fight a number of times over the last 10 years (first on the wrong side of the argument, and then on the right).

    When people tout the superiority of ticket-based cust. support, they often forget the inefficiency of tickets that bounce back and forth from customer to support center because of the oft-vauge nature of the written word. This becomes particularly problematic as the complexity of your product grows, or if you’re a true “solution” and not a tool.

    To explain; a customer writes a ticket saying “I get an error when I do xxx” or “yyy doesn’t work for me.” But while they are describing product behavior, they are actually trying to ACHIEVE something that perhaps may not be obvious in the ticket. Thus, it’s often that the answer to the ticket isn’t the answer to the actual problem; a nuance that causes support ticket pinball as tickets bounce from customer to support rep. And this pisses the customer off. CSAT drops, churn ensues, darkness falls…. All of this can often be solved by one, bona fide, human conversation.

    So I’d even go farther and say support should be picking up the phone to call out when tickets meet a certain criteria; perhaps a ticket has been reopened more than once, or a customer has closed it with a “bad” ZenDesk rating; it’s up to you, but support people (especially more junior ones) can become unreasonably attached to ticket-based resolution even when it’s clearly not working. I’ve seen ZenDesk back-and-forths that span weeks and the rep just refuses to pick up the friggin’ phone and communicate. Policies that make it clear when reps should pick up the phone will be essential to keeping customers from becoming frustrated and having a poor support experience.

  2. Interested in learning about these companies where you can: “outsource this with a good script, for the cost of just a few dollars per call.”

    Everyone we speak with, the costs outweigh the benefit.

  3. Jason – I’ve been an avid reader of your thoughts on how to drive revenue for a while now (and, btw, we’re killing it and growing very rapidly!), and I’m glad to see you mention customer support.

    In my last company, I had a phrase that I used so much that my team all got very sick of hearing it: “Happy Customers = More Customers”. It’s a very simple equation, and to many people it’s obvious – If you have happy customers, they will both purchase more from you (increase per customer ARR), stay with you as a customer longer (reduce churn), and tell their friends (increase new customer ARR).

    The phone and personal interaction is a big part of having happy customers. While email is great, a phone call is almost always better. Even better than a phone call is an in person visit when appropriate. I’ve personally smoothed over some very unhappy customers just by hopping on a plane and getting a face to face meeting. Once time I rescued a multi million dollar deal by going to Hong Kong for a 3 hour meeting. I was in transit longer than I was in country!

    Thanks for your writings and thought leadership – Your articles get shared quite a bit around here.

    Robert Johnson

    1. Hi Ryan,

      I agree with your sentiments. But the reason I bothered to comment was, upon checking out your website, I saw the “Compare with X” links in the footer of the page. That seems like a great idea! If someone is on your website they are probably very aware of the industry leaders and are going/want to compare your offering. So makes total sense to own the conversation.

      I’m going to steal it. Thanks!

  4. Nice article Jason. I agree with everything you mentioned as refutes to the first two lists of reasons why not to have a phone. Two problems I find with the phone that you didn’t mention are as follows:
    1. Language barrier. We’re fortunate enough to have customer’s from all over the world. However, if we were to take calls from these customers, being a predominately English speaking company we would instead leave customers more annoyed than satisfied with our response.
    2. Time difference. Again, we have customers from all corners of the world in all different time zones and being based here in New Zealand means we can only speak on the phone to certain customers at certain times. The beauty of online support is that we can get straight onto the customer’s issues in our inbox rather than a missed call in the middle of the night.
    Be great to hear your thoughts on these two things.

  5. Jason,

    Ouch! While taking inbound support calls from paying customers is excellent, never use a script! Customers *always* recognize them and they *always* react negatively, as they do to cheapo outsourced agents. Yes, if your support team is inefficiently organized and their process/workflow is haphazard, it’s going to be expensive to provide direct 1 to 1 support — but shoving those calls off to someone whose only purpose is to get the caller off the phone as fast as possible is worse than not offering phone support at all. If you’re going to do, it, and I agree you should — do it right.

    If you set up your app and support technology to detect error conditions and automatically respond to them, you can reduce the incoming call volume considerably. If you optimize your resources and process, you can increase effectiveness and reduce costs without sacrificing quality. But if you don’t take support seriously or know that it definitely impacts retention, well. your competitors who do may eat your lunch.

    Mikael Blaisdell
    The Customer Success Association
    The Customer Success Forum on LinkedIn

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