I'm working to make a software startup and maybe hire/find a couple of coworkers.
The problem is that i'm from Chile where the native language is spanish and it is somewhat difficult (expensive) to get english spoken people (I think e-mail or chat support is a more viable option), then... providing phone support wouldn't be possible for a -maybe long- time.
So, please tell me your toughts about a product only supported by e-mail, chat and forums. Thanks.
It depends on the product.
Some companies have no phone support (for example Skype). Some do not even have email support (for example, GMail, even if you pay for the commercial version for companies).
You can do VERY good written support (forums, email, and trouble ticket system-based support). For example http://sourcegear.com has excellent support that is based on their forums. They also have trouble ticket support, but most problems are resolved on their forums.
I think more than whether or not the support is verbal, it is important to fix the problem and respond quickly. That is what customers really want.
It depends heavily on the type of product. For a simple, non expensive B2C consumer product, say $30, you can do very well without phone support. Start reading the Business of Software forum and you will find many examples of this. Proper online documentation like tutorials, videos and FAQs will do the job.
For an expensive B2B product like say, a $5,000 product, phone support will be a must. You will probably need pre sales phone meetings with a remote tool like goto-meeting or something like that.
Greetings from a fellow Chilean :-)
I think if you're starting up, you should try to provide spoken support yourself, even if it means being called a lot. At least until you've got everything else set-up, including a dedicated support-desk.
As long as you provide an easier means of contacting you, with for example an email-contact form on a contact page, the threshold for calling you is actually higher than just filling out that form, and most customers will e-mail anyway. Only the big and difficult questions will come through, and those people you really want to help.
On a sidenote. For me it would be very, very important if I'm able to get to talk somebody with questions and problems regarding a product. It would actually be a big part of my decision to become a customer or not.
Personally, its almost the only differentiating factor you have. Being human and engendering a love of your product with every interaction. I would say either do the phone support yourself, or get Grasshopper and have the voice mails come in and set aside times to get back to them.
You can get away with this for quite some time on email. 37Signals did that for a long time. Another anecdotal case was a startup in Florida called HashRocket, these guys were doing great work, and then when they put up a phone number and started taking calls they noticed that they were converting significantly more customers.
In the business I'm working in, <10 people but running for 5 years now, we just added a second phone person to take sales questions while allowing our existing 1 phone rep to take only product questions. We have seen significant results from doing this.