trends

Customer Service in Motion

Q. Boyer
It started out as a fine morning, late November 1997. The birds were singing, the servers were humming, and the signups were rolling in.

And then, the phone rang. Not just any phone — the phone that rang when customers called. Yes, that phone.

This was the early days of the adult Internet, and this was a small company by the name of Lapis Labs, home of the "Lapis Lounge," part of the first wave of adult paysites to launch back in the mid-'90s. Yours truly was technically the marketing director of Lapis Labs, and as such, I didn't really have any reason to answer that phone.

OK, there was one reason, I suppose: The owner of Lapis had been explicit in his instructions that if you are the only one present when that phone rang, you had to take the call, no matter what department you were in. There were only eight of us working at Lapis at the time, and while there was a single person designated as the primary contact in terms of responding to customer support email, we didn't really have a customer service "department," so covering that phone was everybody's responsibility.

Customer service was, let's face it, largely an afterthought in the early days of this industry. Hearing a site owner say that "the billing processor company handles our customer service" was not an entirely uncommon thing back then. In some of my early meetings with other companies, the customer base was discussed with such disdain that I felt compelled to remind people that without all those "perverts," their site would have no reason to exist — and, more to the point, no revenue to sustain its existence.

Fast forward 11-plus years, and things have changed, immensely. At a major operation like TopBucks, customer service is not a reviled liability; it's a mission-critical responsibility.

An Evolving Approach
One major shift in the approach to adult Internet industry customer service over the years has been driven by improvements and refinements in technology. Whereas in the early days communication between vendor and customer was limited to email and phone — and for a forward-thinking few, IRC was in the mix — these days companies often offer their members and guests a far more sophisticated and immediate means of seeking help.

Margarite M., the customer service manager for TopBucks, has been handling adult Internet-related customer service for more than eight years and has seen the evolution of customer interaction develop firsthand. According to Margarite, real-time communications technology and good organizational protocols are two crucial elements of providing solid customer service.

"Our live chat and email ticketing systems are essential parts of our strategy to connect with our customers," Margarite said. "The live chat option allows us to reach out to our customers and provide them with personal service and a quick response within minutes. Many of our customers are pleased to have a live CS rep to help them with their billing, technical and content questions. For customers who prefer contacting us via email, our ticketing system gives us the opportunity to keep track of all of the support requests and, most importantly allows the customer the ability to track the status of their request."

Ironically, another form of communications technology — namely spam filtering software — actually impedes customer service by making it less assured that a company's messages reach its customer. This is where the organization and multiple means of contact really come into play.

"The ticketing system and live chat really work together and come in handy with free webmail services like Yahoo and Hotmail that may block our responses and with customers who are not aware of spam filters and settings," Margarite noted.

Understanding Customer Needs
Another way that technology and strong organizational methods come into play is in aiding in understanding and anticipating customer needs, which range from the basic (lost passwords, trouble navigating sites) to the highly nuanced (they have the right streaming software but the wrong version of the codec, for example).

"Implementing an email ticketing system allowed us to cultivate the customer issues into a repository of information that allows us to investigate which areas the customer is having difficulty in," Margarite said. "We have found that 50 percent of our time is spent addressing fairly basic concerns, like how to stream and download videos, how to refresh browsers, logging in, popup blockers and spam settings. Having this information repository has been instrumental in the developing of new and improved tools, such as our recently added video tutorials, help links and our new video scroller, which engages customers and offers a more memorable experience."

Tools of the Trade
While many companies develop their own software and systems for handling customer service, there are numerous off-the-shelf products on the market as well. One of the favorites among the adult industry — and the one used by TopBucks — for handling live chat is Live Person. Other customer service software vendors include Kayako.com, RightNow.com and Parature.com.

Ultimately, regardless of what software you use, the most important elements of customer service remain human factors: patience, a level head and the ability to catch flak with grace and aplomb.

"We're very good about answering every message and never 'hanging up' on a customer, no matter how rude they might get," Margarite said. "You really just have to focus on getting them the help they need. The main question we ask them is 'what can I do for you?' Once they understand that you are really trying to help, they usually calm down to the point where you can get back to providing them with the service they need."

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