By Mike and Blake DuBose
Distracted by complex tasks like marketing, strategic planning, and analyzing financial data, many leaders forget simple, vital factors in business success, like making a good first impression. Just by calling their organization from an outside number, they can gain a snapshot of how effectively their staff and communication systems serve potential and existing customers. Unfortunately, as we have experienced firsthand, many businesses exhibit atrocious service when it comes to answering customers’ questions, helping place orders, and connecting clients promptly to competent, courteous representatives promptly.
After recent security breaches at a major credit bureau, we were just two of the 143 million American adults whose sensitive data was stolen by hackers. One would think that the company responsible would be extremely apologetic and attentive—but when we called, the opposite was the case. We spent an hour on hold, with the same sales message repeated every thirty seconds (120 times!), until we finally reached a customer service representative. That person told us that the website number was wrong and transferred our call to the correct division. After waiting 30 minutes to speak to a human, the call abruptly cut off. Brian Fung of the Washington Post experienced a similar scenario, even having to listen to an eight-minute recording about the Fair Credit Reporting Act before being disconnected.
Ideally, when contacting organizations, customers should reach a human being within a reasonable amount of time who will either quickly provide support or direct them to someone who can. However, this isn’t as simple as it sounds. Effectively communicating with clients requires careful thought and planning. Consider the following strategies to improve the impression you make on your customers:
Advertise contact information clearly. Telephone numbers, e-mail or postal addresses, and social media contact options should be highly visible on your website, marketing materials, business cards, and other correspondence. It also helps to offer the ability to chat in real-time with customer service reps, a great idea for customers who have quick questions. (In fact, Business Insider reported in 2016 that, in a study of 6,000 people, more than 65 percent said they use smartphones and messaging apps to contact companies.) Allowing customers to enter a number and promptly receive a call in return is another popular option.
Avoid using computers to answer telephones. There’s nothing worse than “talking” with a computer programmed to act like a human. Some even play typing sounds in the background, further insulting your intelligence. These answering systems often demand too much information, while ignoring callers’ requests to talk to humans.
Get to the point quickly. Most customers who call on the telephone just want to speak to human beings, so don’t make them go through other information first. Avoid putting up hurdles like requiring callers to enter passwords or account numbers, and always use “0” as the extension for customer service so they don’t have to waste time listening to options to hear your facility’s address, hours, website domain, fax numbers, directions, etc. If you must include other information in a recorded greeting, such as “these options have changed,” “call 911 if this is an emergency,” or “this call may be recorded,” express those points in as few words as possible. Selections should be recorded by someone with a pleasant voice who speaks clearly and quickly.
Train staff on proper phone etiquette. It’s always surprising to see employees at successful companies simply ignoring their ringing telephones. Customers could be going down a list of competitors, ready to give the job to the first one who answers and seems qualified.
Employees should know that every caller “signs their check,” so it’s important to answer promptly in a pleasant tone—and to stay on the line until issues are resolved. At a building supply company we frequent, incoming calls are directed to customer service reps who are waiting on clients. When calls arrive, they stop talking with us to answer the telephone, which sends the message that they don’t care about either of our conversations.
Rather than automating or short-staffing your telephone lines, it’s worth spending a little extra money to hire a part-time employee whose main job is answering telephones and returning e-mails or calls. Study call volumes over several weeks and ensure that employees are available to answer during peak times. Be sure that all staff members receive training on basic and finer points of telephone etiquette with calm, pleasant voices (i.e., enunciate clearly; alert clients if they’re going to be on speakerphone; focus on the call rather than multitasking; etc.).
Return calls and e-mails within 24 business hours. Even during hectic times, this is a good practice we implement at our companies. (We actually take it one step further and ask customers on our surveys if their calls were returned within this time frame.) If you are overwhelmed and can’t guarantee a return call, refer him or her to a qualified competitor. This preserves your reputation with customers and builds bonds within your industry.
Hire secret shoppers. Pay someone to call your business, interact with staff, and provide you with their unbiased impressions. Ask testers to leave messages to see how long it takes to hear back. You don’t want to spy on staff; you simply want realistic views of how customers approaching your business are welcomed.
Call in yourself. Telephone your company, both during work hours and afterward. On workdays, were you greeted pleasantly and given quick, understandable options to reach your desired department or contact? After hours, did the voicemail work efficiently and smoothly?
Choose soothing sounds for callers on hold. Select relaxing music (such as Enya) to play at a medium volume while clients wait. Don’t interrupt, other than to tell the person their number in the queue. Avoid periods of silence (which can make callers believe they have been disconnected), sales messages, and annoying static or beeping noises.
Purchase quality telephones. There are few things more frustrating than a poor connection during a customer service call. Use reputable telephone vendors, and have backup plans when your telephone system goes down. Our companies use online services that forward callers to relevant staff cell phones.
The bottom line: While it’s important to develop long-term, complex strategies, don’t overlook business basics in the process. You want to please callers to your organization, not frustrate them! Often, simple factors like having a human answer the phone and solving issues promptly can win you customer loyalty.
About the Authors: Our corporate and personal purpose is to “create opportunities to improve lives” by sharing our knowledge, research, experiences, successes, and mistakes. You can e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mike DuBose received his graduate degree from the University of South Carolina and is the author of The Art of Building a Great Business. He has been in business since 1981 and is the owner of Research Associates, The Evaluation Group, Columbia Conference Center, and DuBose Fitness Center. Visit his nonprofit website www.mikedubose.com for a free copy of his book and additional business, travel, and personal articles, as well as health articles written with Dr. Surb Guram, MD. Blake DuBose graduated from Newberry College’s Schools of Business and Psychology and is president of DuBose Web Group (www.duboseweb.com).
Katie Beck serves as Director of Communications for the DuBose Family of Companies. She graduated from the USC School of Journalism and Honors College.