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Article 8 min read

24/7 Support without 24/7 staff

By Andrew Gori

Last updated February 21, 2024

Providing support around the clock can be very difficult. Before we even consider the practicalities, demand for 24/7 support is almost certainly going to come as your business becomes successful — scaling up beyond its initial audiences and markets. Unlike increasing throughput on a production line (making 10% more product is usually fairly simple), the move to 24/7 support is not so linear: one day your coverage may be 8, 12, or perhaps 16 hours, the next it’s 24 (depending on the number of inquiries). By doing “more of the same,” the cost of the support function in your business will go up by 60%-100%.

So why bother? There are three good reasons:

Most obviously, you may want to provide support in local time zones. Your growth market may already have an on-the-ground team; in which case you’re lucky. Most businesses, however, must seed new markets by providing great support and building a reputation without the paying customer base in place. And it matters: a European Commission report found that 42% of consumers said they never purchase products and services with sales and support in other languages.

You may want to offer support as a component of a premium product, often the case with mid- and high-priced B2B services. This is moderately easy to handle, as support becomes a profit center: customers are explicitly prepared to pay for the effort of delivering it.

Most challenging of all, though, is sheer customer expectation. In today’s omnichannel and online-first world, customers demand instant service day and night; and that expectation is not tied in their minds to the cost of the product or service delivered. We have the same expectation of support on a $10-a-month cloud service as we do to the $100 a month we pay for home utilities or the $1000 a month for a high-end B2B service.

At scale, support is a manageable and predictable business cost. Indeed, smart businesses today treat it as a business driver: a way to differentiate from the competition and feed ideas back into the product roadmap. The challenge is minimising costs during the transition from a small business with one HQ or one customer community to something more substantial.

And the most effective businesses see this transition not just as a challenge, but a chance to optimise their support function for the future.

Six tips to break through the growth barrier

1. Optimise self-serve

Cuts load on your existing team, so your resources can go further

A problem which no longer needs support is a problem solved – for you and your customer. As Fast Company says: “Self-service has the biggest impact when based on a win-win philosophy. The primary goal should always be an improved customer relationship. The advantages for the organisation are efficiency as well as higher profits.” Aim to make popular solutions to customer challenges more visible, available and functional:

  • Are you highlighting regular queries and their solutions in customer forums?

  • Are you changing flows through your processes (online or offline) to reduce complexity and confusion?

  • Are you using video, screenshots, or in B2B contexts, training and webinars, to educate your users?

  • Are you cutting out “micro-processes” completely? Nobody should be raising a support ticket for a password reset or the addition of a new account.

2. Think global from the outset

Reduces complexity and increases scalability as you grow Every difference in process between departments, offices, and countries represents complexity. It’s one of the reasons why big businesses become lumbering and lose their agility. SaaS services in particular create incredible scale by operating consistently from Denver to Denmark. If you can map out customer processes with confidence in advance, scaling up will become much easier.

3. Master the art of playbooks

Gives your team processes to follow without sacrificing flexibility

Of course, having read the last section, you’ll wisely point out that countries differ dramatically — we’re not all the same. And that’s not only about linguistic and cultural differences: take for example the penetration of different technologies. Fixed internet in Korea, for example runs at a hot 132MB. In Italy, just 32MB (and neither are particularly outliers), so citizens will use the technologies at their disposal in different ways.

For an optimised support function, you therefore want a balance of a globalised set of processes, with some flexibility for local circumstances. The answer is playbooks. Matthew Bruun, Chief Revenue Officer at Brightpearl says, “At Brightpearl, we live by playbooks: documented processes as to how we go to market for any particular role. Whether it’s support, customer success or product management, a playbook defines their approach. These give structures and guardrails within which anyone in any role knows they can achieve the outcome we need, but with the flexibility to make course corrections for cultural differences.”

With playbooks, not only can you deal with international customers, you will be better prepared to roll out new shift patterns, including—likely for the first time—agents who are new to the business and might not regularly cross shifts over with your more experienced employees.

4. Deploy technology. Everywhere.

Cuts the cost of every interaction and meets expectations across all channels

Way back in 2011, Gartner predicted that, by 2020, customers will manage 85% of their experiences with a company without human interaction – and that was before rudimentary AI like bots had been conceived. In the 1990s, companies wanted to deploy technology to cut costs whether their customers wanted to use it or not. Today, a positive customer experience depends on it. But while 69% of customers expect businesses to link their communication channels together in real time, only 38% of businesses actually do.

Your stack should include tech to create great customer experiences and tech to trim costs.

5. Match queries and channels to appropriate response times

Understand what needs to happen now and what can wait till the morning…

Customer satisfaction is a function of customer expectation — and that’s something we have more control over than you might think. For example, if your team is stretched and you are going to take time to answer emails, at least give an automatic reply with an acknowledgement of receipt and ideally an expected response time. This will buy you goodwill and improve customer experience.

But a more strategic approach is to deploy the resources you have appropriately for the queries you’re receiving and the response times people expect; not least because in general, performance is terrible.

The legendary service guru Shep Hyken said of 2015’s stats: “I knew it was bad, but just didn’t know how bad. For email the average response time was 7 hours and 51 minutes! For Facebook the average response time was one day, 3 hours and 7 minutes!”

That’s a low bar for smart companies to exceed. Live chat (like phone) is synchronous – it’s a conversation in real-time. But social and email are asynchronous. You have time to triage the issue, manage your resources and communicate expectations effectively. If it takes some time out or extra resource to regain control over your inflow, that time’s worth spending.

6. Use everyone on your team

Puts service at the heart of your organisation

Fundamentally, the 24/7 support challenge is one of resource. It costs money to deploy support agents. Unless those agents are people already in your organisation. Remember when it was just three people and everyone answered the phone? The growth phase of a business is exactly the same, and whilst it’s not workable forever, everyone has a duty to step up to the plate — especially during the holiday rush.

It’s not just a desperate solution: there are huge advantages. When companies grow (especially past the 25 and 150 employee marks), their characters change. People become compartmentalised and focus only on their disciplines. But in today’s world, where the customer is king, and where the subscription services of the SaaS economy mean that customers can switch off their business with a click, exceeding expectations is everyone’s job.

Chris Savage, CEO of business video platform, Wistia, says “We call it All Hands Support. It means that everyone in the company takes shifts on managing the chat widget, answering the phone, and calling to check in on customers. The benefits of a shared support system are enormous. Not only can you more easily automate technical issues, but you also end up improving your company’s messaging, reducing confusion around features, modifying pricing elements that don’t jive properly, and cleaning out issues from every other customer-facing element of business.”

Just as your support team should have a deep understanding of every aspect of the product, it doesn’t hurt for everyone in your organisation to have an understanding of the support experience.

If your CEO, sales team or product and engineering specialists take a few hours to work a service shift, the benefits of their renewed understanding of customer need will far outweigh the cost of taking them off the day job.

At Unbabel, we’re making language barriers a thing of the past for companies that want to go global—or optimise their workflows when they already operate at that scale—with Unbabel Translate for Zendesk. Unbabel’s mix of domain-adapted Neural Machine Translation, Quality Estimation and a global community of 55,000 translators are here to help you deliver true multilingual customer service.