Managing the After-Hours Service Call Hot Potato

Apr 16

Written by: John Sciacca
4/16/2014 12:42 PM  RssIcon

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 


7 comment(s) so far...


Re: Managing the After-Hours Service Call Hot Potato

My company currently has an after hours sales and tech support line. We use two cell phones (one for tech and one for sales) that go home with different staff members each night. Our staff shares the responsibility and the tech line usually doesn't ring, but the staff understands that this is just part of their job responsibilities. It is not seen as additional work or a serious burden since we all have a sense of ownership in the company (even though ownership is only held by two individuals). When I was in the Army we were taught to take ownership of all our equipment and the things we worked on. I've tried to transfer that mentality over to the company. If your staff sees the company as their own they will do their best to help it grow. With the growth of the company their salary can increase as an added benefit.

By Chris Burford on   4/16/2014 2:49 PM

Re: Managing the After-Hours Service Call Hot Potato

Thanks, Chris! Do you charge anything for this support, or is this just rolled in as part of the service and support that you offer?

By John Sciacca on   4/16/2014 3:01 PM

Re: Managing the After-Hours Service Call Hot Potato

My comment is more of a story, based on how my brain works when it comes to after hours stuff.

I also have to check the text and/or read the email. Last week I had a prospect slash my quote in half and ask me if it was okay to buy the receiver I quoted online (of course the only model number on the quote) and source speakers elsewhere. I told him I was "disappointed that one would take my design and buy internet b-stock." He thanked me for my candor and said he would kick it around as quoted. I did not reply as I was doing work-truck suspension work over the weekend.

His next email said lets cut out the Sonos and half the speakers, line-item vetoing like The Governator. At this point my next and final email said I would have to step away from this one and he would need to find another guy. Though I was nice enough to tell him that without the Sonos, he would have an amp for the outdoors but no tunes to play :)

The bottom line is this, I *have to* address the after hours communications, good or bad, almost immediately. If it's bad and I let it simmer too long, it will ruin my night or weekend. If it's good news, it will make my day that much better.

By Tom Kofski on   4/17/2014 6:23 PM

Re: Managing the After-Hours Service Call Hot Potato

We used to have all calls forward to my cell 24/7. The calls got to be a drain on my family time which is a high value to me and our mission statement. I switched our office line to stop forwarding at the end of business day. (we also changed providers to allow texting our our office line) We close on Sunday period no calls or emails answered. Of course we still look at the emails. Since this we have seen a lot less of the off hour freak out calls.

By RJ Armbruster on   4/18/2014 8:47 AM

Re: Managing the After-Hours Service Call Hot Potato


"The bottom line is this, I *have to* address the after hours communications, good or bad, almost immediately. If it's bad and I let it simmer too long, it will ruin my night or weekend. If it's good news, it will make my day that much better."

I know *exactly* how you feel. When I look at my iPhone and I see the sender, I will try to put off looking at it for a sec, but it gnaws away at me until I finally can't enjoy anything until I know what it says, for good or ill.


How do you handle it if a customer point blank asks you for your cell phone number? We have that happening more and more and many are really put off if you won't give it...

By John Sciacca on   4/18/2014 10:43 AM

Re: Managing the After-Hours Service Call Hot Potato

Separate your cell phone from service cell phone, they have to be 2 different numbers. After install, calls must go to service cell phone to be returned, calling my cell will incur a bill.

Service phone number is included as part of a service plan, buy a plan or call the office during hours, or leave a voice mail at the office, or send an email, but don't expect a return until shop hours. Of course we look on the weekend, but that's our choice.

By Rob Grabon on   4/19/2014 10:05 AM

Re: Managing the After-Hours Service Call Hot Potato


Not in your business (we do custom software development). We are very upfront with our clients that the end product (after they accept) comes with a "normal business hours" support for 30/60/90 days - depending on the project. We then offer them a paid support package where they can pre-buy support hours at a discounted price. Each client has a single point of contact via email. The contact person triages each email, and determines if this is a "holy crap" issue, or a "user education" issue. Holy crap issues are dealt with immediately, education issues are dealt with ASAP. This works out great for our clients, and for the team. It is all about setting expectations right up front with the client. BTW - I just moved and my audio installer moved all my equipment, and spent two days here getting things up and running. The last thing they said was - "you have Scott's cellphone number so you can call him if anything comes up". It would never cross my mind to call him at 11:30pm, but it sounds like the "you have my number" is par for the course in your industry.

By Peter Madsen on   4/23/2014 1:44 PM

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