A recent post on Hacker News asked “How have you guys gone about setting up a support line for your startups?” This is an issue we grappled with early on at Genlighten: Should we offer phone support, and if so, how?
How the Big Dogs Do It
A quick glance at Ancestry, Footnote and World Vital Records shows that they all offer a toll-free phone support hotline, available during standard business hours Monday-Friday. Ancestry displays their 800-number prominently in the footer of their homepage. Footnote and WVR place theirs one level deeper on their “Contact Us” or “Customer Service” pages.
Startup Realities Dictate Support Strategies
So for established, well-funded genealogy sites, phone support is clearly a given. But what about for smaller startups? Is it necessary or even practical for them to offer phone support, even when they’re only seeing a few thousand visitors per month? I took a look at three that I’ve encountered in the exhibit halls at various genealogy conferences: Ohana Software, Photoloom, and Arcalife. All are run by cool people who I’ve met personally and whose business judgment I respect.
Of the three, only Ohana offers a phone support line. It’s toll free, and staffed Monday-Friday 10-4 pm. Both Photoloom and Arcalife offer email support but do not display a phone support number. This makes sense if we consider their respective business models. Ohana sells desktop software that the user downloads and installs (and eventually needs to upgrade.) This process can prove challenging for its customers, so phone support is pretty crucial. Photoloom and Arcalife, on the other hand, offer cloud-based subscription services which function totally within a web browser and do not require installation. So phone support isn’t as important for them or their customers.
We’ve actually offered a toll-free phone contact option using Onebox since May of 2008, even though our private beta only launched in October of last year. At the time, I felt that visitors to our placeholder website or people who picked up flyers at our exhibit booth needed a toll-free phone number to call with a serious-sounding PBX-like voice greeting. It just seemed like the professional thing to do. In retrospect, that was a mistake. I like Onebox, but at $49.95/month, we should have just gone with my cellphone number until we were actually taking paying customers.
Now that we’re up and running, it makes a bit more sense. Since we’re an online genealogy lookup marketplace, customers are likely to have payment-processing and lookup delivery questions more frequently than they would if we simply offered a subscription service. But we still don’t receive enough support calls yet to justify the cost. The $49.95/month gets us a professionally-recorded voice greeting, up to four extensions, 2,000 minutes of calls, and numerous other cool features. [For example, it forwards support calls to our cell phones when we're out.] But we’ve only gotten about 20 calls in the three months since the private beta began, so that’s about $7.50 each. Overkill, obviously, particularly for a bootstrapped startup.
One alternative would be to go with Grasshopper. They offer a similar service to Onebox, but their lowest-cost plan offers 100 minutes per month for just $9.95 [a one-time $25 set-up fee is extra.] That sounds like it’d be a better fit. As our customer base (and the volume of support calls) grows, we could then upgrade to Grasshopper’s 2,000 minutes/month plan, which is priced the same as Onebox’s.
Or we could just try Google Voice. It does pretty much everything we really need at this point [including call forwarding] and it’s free. I suspect for most small startups, this is the way to go until they need to scale to something more enterprise-oriented. I haven’t dug deep into Google Voice since my invitation arrived, but I plan to shortly.
What About You?
Are you interested in adding phone support to your genealogy blog, society page, or e-commerce site? Do any of the options I’ve discussed appeal to you? Have you had any amusing or noteworthy experiences with genealogy website phone support? Please let us know in the comments.