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Is Your Phone System Costing You Business?

Furniture World Magazine


Saving time vs. giving your customers what they really want.

This is the age of technology-technology that includes sophisticated computer systems, the Internet, Web sites, and fax on demand. What's high technology today can be obsolete technology tomorrow. Sometimes it's tough to keep up. It used to be that only the big businesses had automated phone systems. Now the cost has come down, and the technology has gotten better.

Now, more and more business phones are answered digitally. You know the routine "press one for this, two for that, etc." You either like it or you don't. Most don't. There is no substitute for a warm human voice who can answer an immediate question.

On the flip side, automated phone systems save a lot of time and money for most businesses. They can cut back on payroll and address a myriad of problems. But they can lead to a lot of angry customers if they're not used correctly.

For years I've been writing on the basics of good phone skills, including getting the caller to like you, finding out who's calling, and trying for some action a sale or appointment, or at least helping the caller.

Automated phone systems are lacking in many of the basics. And if your caller has a rotary phone, (and many older people still do), your automated system is almost useless.

I'll give you a great example. My mom has a checking account with Fleet Bank. She lost her debit card. She looked in the phone book to call her local branch, only to find no listing. There was no listing because Fleet Bank's branches have unlisted phone numbers. You have to call an 800 number to get into an automated system, go through several prompts, and then reach a person who will decide if you should be connected to your local branch. My mom has a rotary phone. After staying on the phone for almost five minutes, a human voice came on. She explained her problem and was told that the person on the phone would call the branch for her, and then put her through. The voice then came back on and said everybody at the branch was busy and someone would call back within THREE TO FOUR HOURS!

My mom asked for the number of the branch so she could call directly. She was told, "We do not give out the numbers to the branches. They are unlisted." My mother then personally went to her local bank and transferred her accounts to another bank where she could call someone directly without having to wait five minutes on an automated system because of her rotary phone.

She switched banks not because of poor customer service, but because of (in her eyes), NO SERVICE.

Have you ever tried an airline's automated arrival and departure times phone lines? I called to check on a client's arrival time at our local airport, using the system. I just wanted to see if the plane was going to be on time. I didn't know that the flight had been canceled. After going through an endless series of prompts and spending two minutes on hold, a human being came on the line, gave his name, and said nothing more. Not "Can I help you," or "Which flight are you checking on?" When I asked if the flight number was on his computer and whether he knew the flight's status, he acted put out.

The automated system was supposed to have all the answers. He was not supposed to be involved. I was sorry to disrupt his day.

Sometimes, however, an automated system with some smarts can be quite effective. I called a restaurant the other day to find out if they were open. It was Monday. Some restaurants are closed on Monday. A human voice answered, a real person. I asked if they were open. She said, "Please hold." Three minutes later, another person came on. I asked if they were open. He said "Yes." I asked why the person didn't tell me. He said, "All she is supposed to do is answer the phone, tell the caller to hold, and get someone to come to the phone." What a great way to irritate customers! Here is where an automated phone system could give general information if a business actually doesn't have some of the basics of handling phone calls down very well.

If you have an automated phone system, make sure your caller can hit zero at any time to get a real person. For rotary phone callers, when you say "stay on the line and someone will be right with you," make sure that someone helps the caller within 10 seconds or less. Two minutes is not being "right with you."

For every one complaint you get about your phone system, there are probably 10 more people who are upset but don't tell you. Take those complaints and criticisms seriously. If your menus are too long, shorten them. If customers have to agonize for more than a minute before knowing how to access a certain person or department, it might be time to take another look at your system. And if customers are complaining, and your automated phone system isn't doing the job, it might be time to rethink the whole thing and (gasp) go back to human beings answering the phone. Wouldn't that be different?

Bob Popyk is the publisher of Creative SellingĀ®, a monthly newsletter on sales and marketing strategies for high-ticket retailers. His sales meetings and seminars are presented worldwide to major companies and industries. Questions or comments can be directed to FURNITURE WORLD at editor@furninfo.com.