Managing the After-Hours Service Call Hot Potato

4/16/2014 4:42:00 PM

The other night, as I was just settling in to a wonderful post-work IPA, my cell phone rang. It was 7:15 and it was one of my clients. I answered the phone to see what they needed. The crisis? They couldn’t find Wheel of Fortune on TV. (I’m not even kidding.) They had moved to a new home with a new cable provider and couldn’t find Wheel. My client grew up with Vanna, enjoyed watching Wheel every night, and by God, where was Wheel of Fortune on the new TV we sold her?!? (This escalated to the point where she was talking about switching cable providers or rewiring for satellite before I explained that with the NCAA tournament in progress, Wheel was pre-empted that week, and I assured her that she could return to enjoying her evening of puzzle solving and letter turning with Vanna the following week.)

Just two nights ago my business partner was awoken when his phone received multiple, rapid-fire texts from a client at 11:30 p.m. saying that the audio system was having an issue and wasn’t working and when were we going to come out to fix it?!

I have another client that routinely emails me updates about quirks in her lighting system between 12-1 a.m. Even though we’ve pretty much determined that there is a high likelihood of an electrical mis-wire or that the LED tape lighting she insisted on using with a dimmer against my recommendation is at fault.

I’m sure you have many similar stories. These are all work invasions into our personal time that rob you of your much-needed downtime away from work. I know that with my iPhone next to me on the couch or in my pocket or even charging in the other room, when I hear it beep or buzz, I am compelled to look at it. And whether you respond to them immediately or not, just knowing that there is a waiting message is like some kind of ticking digital information time bomb that can fill you with anxiety and stress. For me, when I see that it is a message or email from a client, I can’t *not* look at it.


There was a story out of France a couple of weeks ago (that turned out to be a hoax) where it was reported a new law was going into effect that would make it illegal for French employees to answer or even look at work emails after 6 p.m. When I heard this, my first thought was, “Those lucky bastards!” But my installer-wired brain immediately followed-up with, “This is never going to work for high-end installation firms!” (Followed by, “Americans should go over there willing to take calls whenever and clean up!” from my capitalist brain).

In our modern connected world, most clients today take it as a given that you will freely share your email and cell phone information with them, and take it as a real affront if you don’t offer to share this information. And for the majority of them, this isn’t a problem. But when people start crossing the boundaries–or when there is a real after-hours emergency–how do you handle this?

I remember several years ago when I went through Runco training, they told us Runco had tech support available around the clock. Wherever you were, you could call in and get a call back from a Runco tech any time of the day. With a company selling premium priced systems–with a history of, shall we say, sometimes questionable reliability–this was a terrific safety net. Runco handled this by having what they called “the hot potato,” a special phone technicians took turns manning. When you called in after hours, your message was recorded and then relayed to the hot potato, and then the call was returned.

This “hot potato” idea was similar to a suggestion one of my techs offered, that we purchase a cheap “burner” phone that we load minutes onto each month and give that number out to clients. The number could then be given out as a “premium service” option where your call *would* be answered around the clock but where you would be billed for the call. That way a client could decide if it was an “actual” emergency they wanted to pay for before dialing.

Also, the “hot line” number could be subscribed to as a premium service plan option, providing any easy way to work into some kind of a recurring revenue solution. Call it a “Custom Care” version of Apple Care.

The staff could take turns being issued the phone so the “burden” of calls could be spread around. As an incentive, the employee could then be paid a bonus that week for being in charge of the phone, or given a per-call spiff.

The truth is, we are high-tech service providers, but very few of our clients actually paid enough money to warrant us being their 24/7, on-call digital concierge. (In fact, it seems that the ones that quibble the hardest over price up front are often the ones that are the most demanding of time and attention on the backend. It’s like some horrible law of inverse returns.)

We’re still kicking around the idea of how or if to implement some new plan, but if your company has an after-hours support program in place, I’d love to hear about it in the comments section…

John Sciacca is principal of Custom Theater and Audio in Myrtle Beach, SC.
John Sciacca 



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