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Friday, April 11, 2008

Who answers the phone?

Seth Godin references this Boingboing blog entry with a 1931 image showing students how the dial phone works. Perhaps we should relearn the basics.

Seth Godin has captured one of the most important marketing messages on the first ring in this blog entry, "Who answers the phone?" The question of how initial phone inquiries are handled can be extended throughout the business; rote, insensitive, and ill-thought (or no) response to phone calls/messages does absolutely no good for your business or brand;thoughtful, fast, and human rather than rote responses will work wonders for your brand, and will do a whole lot more for your business than the slickest brochure or website.

More and more these days, the phone is a secondary method of communication. Many mornings when I am working, I will be at the laptop, exchanging dozens of email messages. Although my phone number is widely displayed, I actually receive few calls. The reason is that the work involved in communicating at both ends is much higher than email -- which allows you to send your message at your convenience (and for you to respond equally at your convenience). The phone is an intrusion -- even when you are set up with a public number to welcome inbound calls -- so what do we do in business?
  • We hire telemarketers (or worse yet, computers, to make outbound calls, to bug people, irritate them, and cause them to put up screens and set up answering machines to avoid inbound calls;
  • We use the same screens (or ill-trained employees) to answer the in-bound calls.
The solution to this problem is to treat all inbound calls with respect, quickly separate the solicitation (or rote survey calls) for a polite decline, and then, listen carefully to the other calls, whether they be a client inquiry or a service request or (gulp) someone perhaps wanting to do business with us.

Perhaps the biggest challenge here is to have employees who can throw the script away and truly engage with the client. This isn't easy -- especially when in certain circumstances the inbound calls seem to follow their own predictable script. And clearly you don't want someone speaking spontaneously and carelessly -- you really don't know if the inbound caller is preparing a lawsuit or representing a competitor!

But I think if you look at the numbers, you'll see something interesting. Say you are a mid-size business preparing to spend $200,000 on a marketing campaign. Wouldn't it make sense to take $20,000 from that budget, pay it to the front-line person who answers your phone, and give the new employee a fancier title than 'receptionist'. And if you are a smaller business, without that type of marketing budget, please remember my previous posting where I advocate that brand is defined less by money than time -- that is your (and your employees') concern and respect for their clients.

P.S. Do we totally adhere to these standards: I wish so, but we have a less-than-perfect voice mail system, and too many of our calls find their way to slow-response limbo (including ones for me). It is something we will fix, and I will measure our progress. If you call me at 888-432-3555 ext. 224, will you get an answer right away (not now, I am at the OGCA symposium) and, if not, can you reach someone 'real' who cares right away (right now, only within business hours, but the phone rings to my home when I'm out of the office), and if not these two, will I return your call within one business day or at the time you request? Feel free to find out, and tell me how we are doing.

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