Disempowered, poorly paid staff slotted into giant call centers, mindlessly following scripts in whichever country is currently the cheapest to operate … that’s the impression that comes to mind for many of us when we think about phone support.

But it hasn’t always been this way. For decades, the telephone represented the best in remote customer service, a tool that let businesses talk to customers who were far away from their storefronts or corporate headquarters.

Somewhere along the line, phone support lost its way — but recent technology has once again made it a viable and impactful channel for delivering a top-notch customer experience.

A brief history of customer service channels

1960: Call centers emerge.

In an effort to increase efficiency, large companies set up departments full of telephones to handle customer inquiries. These centers became particularly prolific in the ‘70s with the advent of IVR (Interactive Voice Response) technology.

Late 1970s: IVR technology evolves.

Initially limited to small vocabularies, IVRs were expensive and notoriously buggy. As technology developed through the ’80s, more elaborate phone trees arose.

1989: Outsourcing customer support.

While outsourcing began prior to the late ’80s, it was not considered a formal customer service strategy until the early ’90s. That’s when companies began to focus more on cost-saving measures, and many customer service and support centers were sent abroad, most notably to places such as India, Bangladesh and the Philippines.

1996: Email and live chat support emerge.

<>As more customers had access to the web, customer support and service teams began to make use of email as a scalable, low-cost channel. Companies also ventured into the world of live chatting, where a customer could have a real-time, one-to-one interaction with another human.

2008: Rise of social media support.

Customer service channels proliferated along with social media apps like Facebook and Twitter.

Why did phone support get a bad rap?

Many companies regard the customer service they deliver as a competitive differentiator. But even customer-driven companies are still pressured to increase efficiencies and reduce costs. As companies try to find a balance between cost and customer satisfaction, customer service quality can often miss the mark.

The widespread outsourcing of call centers through the 1990s and early 2000s lowered costs, but it also contributed to the decline of quality phone service. Large companies simply could not meet the same excellency standards as before — a 2013 Forrester report showed that more than 60% were rated as delivering an “OK” or “very poor” customer experience.

The reinvention of phone support

Fast forward to 2017, when customer experience has become the new marketing and technology has transformed the voice channel — companies are returning to phones to set themselves apart from competitors.

By 2020, customer experience will overtake price and product as a key differentiator of your business.

It can be a challenge, however, to project a professional image when your business is just starting out. Small and mid-sized companies may wish to seem bigger in order to garner trust. That’s where virtual business phone solutions can help, because technology has made it much easier to set up and scale phone support.

And the companies that are able to go back to basics — the possibility for customers to call and get a real human being, for example — are winning out by humanizing their brands.

Best practices for phone support

If you’ve never supported customers via phone or you’re looking to change the way you do phone support, here are some principles to implement.

1. Train your team to establish a rapport

Interacting with an invested and attentive human voice is invaluable when it comes to fostering a good rapport with a customer. An empathetic rapport means making your customer’s issue your own, and showing the caller that they aren’t just another number.

Using the phone for customer support also offers a business the opportunity to turn around a dissatisfied customer. It conveys more investment and attention than other channels; that means a solid shot at turning a bad review into a potential brand ambassador.

Since the phone is a great vector for making customers feel valued, your support team needs the proper training to succeed.

2. Implement modern features

Click-to-dial and automatic call-back features are perfect examples of how the phone channel has evolved for the better, thanks to VOIP phone technology.

Studies show that 70 percent of customers would rather get a call back than wait in a call queue, and that 75 percent consider click-to-call a necessary feature. These are simple, speedy ways to get in touch with a real person and quickly fix an issue.

The objective is to increase customer satisfaction by lowering the customer effort score.

3. Optimize the customer lifecycle

Phone support is a great asset for customer service over the entire customer lifecycle. Likewise, the same tool can be a boon for a company through call monitoring and data collection.

The phone is the perfect channel to use to ask clients for feedback without cold-calling them — when customers are on the phone with the support team anyway, they may agree to answer a few questions. Using this feedback to make data-driven decisions will benefit any business.

4. Keep it simple and speedy

While you might assume a live chat window or social media might perform better in terms of speed, the truth is that a customer support issue often starts on another channel, only to escalate to a phone call.

A support team’s objective should be first call resolution. If the structure of the support funnel encourages phone calls for more serious or complex issues, businesses should strive to fix them on the first call. Frequent first call resolution is a great indicator of customer satisfaction that should be a key performance indicator common to both support and technical teams to incentivize excellent performance.

Delivering good customer experiences is the key to empowering customers and gaining their long-term loyalty, in addition to increasing revenue — a win-win for businesses and customers.

Though a single-channel customer support system is no longer viable for most businesses, the phone remains a staple in any multi-channel strategy. By bringing phone support into the 21st century, you’ll not only serve users, you’ll benefit your business as well.

Miruna Mitranescu

Miruna Mitranescu

Miruna is Head of Marketing at Honeypot, previously Aircall. Connect with her on Twitter and LinkedIn.