37signals & Freshbooks Disagree On Customer Service 2.0

There is a fascinating "smackdown" of sorts going between two leading Web2.0 companies which raises some very interesting questions about the future of customer service and what customers really want. Ok, maybe not so much a smackdown as a philosophical difference of opinion, but its one worth watching if you are a marketer or have anything to do with customer service. On one side, you have Sarah Hatter from 37signals, the maker of hugely popular web based applications for business such as Basecamp (which are used by over 1 million people). They are one of the few Web2.0 companies that have found a way to scale and make money, so their experience is not to be taken lightly. (Full Disclaimer – Ogilvy and several of our clients are currently customers and I LOVE Basecamp).  Here’s what Sarah had to say in her post last week on the topic of why 37signals doesn’t offer phone support:

"In a perfect world, calling a business for help would be quick, painless, productive, and human. But it’s not and it’s not going to be. That old time ideal of calling the local retailer or company and talking with someone after two rings was demolished by the call centers and overseas help desks that sprung up in the information age. It’s time to stop thinking that phone support is so essential. We’re lucky that we have an email support system that works and is incredibly efficient considering the volume of customers we interact with daily. It works because we’re committed to making it work, and if we can do it every company with a mailserver can do it too."

Instead of phone support, 37signals has focused on offering superior email-based customer service. They do it rapidly and thoroughly, without the distraction of having those same staff that respond to emails also trying to answer the phone. Based on the great reviews for customer service they typically get, their model works. On the other side of the debate is a younger and smaller (but equally hot) Web2.0 company called Freshbooks which offers an online invoicing and timesheet management tool. The application gets equally positive rave reviews from users and has been on a huge growth curve. (Another Disclaimer – I know a few of the team members behind Freshbooks very well and like them. I DREAM of being able to use Freshbooks to record my time instead of the antiquated software from the 1990s I have been forced to use at my last few jobs).

In a response to Sarah’s post about choosing email over the phone, Sunir Shah from Freshbooks rises to its defense, noting:

"I’ll tell you the secret of why we answer the phone. Sarah is completely right: people don’t expect it. When we answer the phone right away, we have proved we’re a different kind of company. We demonstrate we put a priority on customer service. Our motto here is Execute on Extraordinary Experiences Everyday. As Sarah points out, good customer service is in fact extraordinary in the sense that it’s abnormal. That’s sad because everybody wants it. Therefore, if you want to truly brighten the day of a customer that wants to phone, answer the phone. It’s good for business! When a customer hits a wall, we can free their minds immediately by being a real human being that takes ownership of the problem and fights on their behalf. Those customers become your most loyal advocates."

The most powerful thing about Freshbooks is the way that their customers rave about their experiences with them and the personal connection they feel to them. The phone is just a part of their strategy to create those extraordinary experiences, but for Freshbooks it helps them to stand out. Of course, the easy thing to point out is that they are doing it on a smaller scale than 37signals. So here’s an open question – which side of the debate do you fall on? In order to grow and be successful, can you really afford to take calls and have a human on the other side of the phone as Freshbooks does, or do you need to be hyper focused on efficiency like 37signals?

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