Chances are, you're spending a lot of money trying to attract new customers-through newspaper advertising, direct mail and yellow pages listings. For most customers, the first contact they have with your business is through their initial telephone call. Your initial phone greeting can have a tremendous impact on the effectiveness of all your other marketing programs.
Take a minute to imagine the impact of a poor telephone greeting on a potential buyer who calls you after seeing one of your ads or direct mail pieces and you'll probably get motivated to put some thought into how all your employees greet callers, rather than making answering the phone a random experience.
Like the critical first impression in a personal meeting, the first few seconds of a telephone call also create a strong impression with the caller determining his opinion of your approachability, mood and professionalism. And we all know how difficult it is to reverse a poor first impression. You may never get another chance.
Think about your recent experiences calling businesses. How many times have you called a company and the response is a never-ending automated list of menu options or a distracted and impolite live human voice? Sometimes you even can hear the person who answers your call finishing up a conversation with a co-worker before he or she addresses your call. Other times, you are put on hold and have no idea when or if a person will come back on the line. Do you want to do business with a company that answers its calls in such a sloppy way? Do you think your customers would?
Communication is the cornerstone of business success and telephone communication is a large part of the initial first impression potential customer receive of your business. The danger of a poor telephone greeting is greatest with potential new customers who have never had previous contact with you. They have nothing invested in the relationship and can call any one of your competitors just as easily to satisfy their needs.
As the leader in your company and as an example to your employees it's important that you take the time to develop a telephone strategy-a consistent way your employees should answer the phone, take messages and interact with callers.
The first step is to let your employees know their telephone contact with customers and potential buyers is one of their most important tasks. It's also important to use good phone habits yourself, to set an example of the way customers should be treated on the phone.
Don't follow the tendency of many businesses and assign the most junior and least expert employee to answering the phones. This is acceptable only if that person is well trained in phone skills and also knows a fair amount about your business so they can speak intelligently to potential buyers and direct calls properly.
Here are some tips to make your phone greeting more effective and to minimize the amount of frustration callers may feel:
• Make sure the phone is picked up before it rings four times. Set up a system so the person who is responsible for answering calls has back-up when call volume is heavy.
• Don't leave your company's greeting up to each individual employee's whim. Instead, instruct your employees exactly how to answer so callers always hear a consistent greeting. Make sure the greeting is professional and upbeat. Keep it somewhat short and encourage employees to articulate clearly so the caller knows that he or she has reached the right company.
At some point in the initial call, make sure you thank the caller for calling. If you're at a loss as to what you'd like your employees to say, listen to the greetings of other companies to decide what you like and what you don't.
• Provide training to your employees on telephone skills. Many local phone companies offer training courses for their business customers' employees. A few hours spent with a professional coach can make a big difference to your employees' skills-and their expertise sometimes provides a level of credibility with which your advice cannot compare.
• If you use an automated telephone system that instructs callers to press buttons to access various functions, make sure the list of options a caller must listen to is short. And, always make sure there is an "out," a button callers can press to be connected to a breathing and speaking human being.
• Encourage your employees to actually smile when they are talking on the phone. Many callers say they can feel the emotion of the person at the other end of the phone. They can tell whether the person is interested, enthusiastic and friendly, and they respond positively to it. Some callers even claim they can tell when the person at the other end of the phone is smiling!
• Focus on not talking too quickly on the telephone. Your listener may not understand what you are saying or may miss an important point you make. It's a good idea to take your cue from the speed at which your caller speaks. Also, make sure to speak clearly and enunciate your words to make sure callers understand what you are saying.
• Even if you are totally comfortable with the concept of a speakerphone, be aware that some people are uncomfortable talking on a speakerphone and may be intimidated by the thought that their voice is heard throughout your office.
Ask your caller if it's OK if you use the speakerphone. Once you've had the courtesy to ask, most callers won't object, and then you can write and work with both hands free while you talk and listen.
• Unfortunately, the hold button is a reality of business today. Try to use the hold button as little as possible because putting a customer on hold always creates an opportunity for them to hang up. Callers respond in different ways to being asked to hold. Some view it benignly, others become offended. When you do ask them to hold, try to make the experience as painless as possible because you never know which category a particular caller falls into.
• If you must ask someone to hold, verify first that the caller is willing to wait. If possible, let them know why you are putting them on hold and give them an estimate as to how long it will be before you will be back to them. Then, make sure to get back to the caller in less than 30 seconds, even if you must get the caller's name and phone number to call back when things are less hectic. When you return to the caller, thank them for waiting or apologize for the delay.
• When you put someone on hold, make sure to use the telephone's hold capabilities, rather than putting the phone down on the desk or counter where they can hear background conversations or noise. Who knows what they may hear inadvertently? It could be a discussion with an unhappy customer who has a quality problem or a conversation with your installer regarding a botched job.
• If you ask callers to hold on a regular basis (for example, while they are waiting for you to research some detailed information or contact an installer to get an answer), consider purchasing a machine that allows you to tape a message about your business instead of playing music in their ears or just having dead air. They may learn something about the products and services you sell that they did not know before, that will help them make a decision or want to buy even more from you.
Using a Machine
Answering machines and voice mail are here to stay, and few people have the phobias about leaving messages as in the past. On your message, let callers know what they can expect. For example: "I check my messages often during the day and will call back within three hours."
Also make sure to ask them to leave important information: telephone number, best time to call back, if they are calling for someone specific.
Here are some other tips on using an answering machine:
• If you use an answering machine or voice mail from a telephone company, make sure your message is professional and it is easy for the caller to leave a message and feel confident that it has been recorded. Avoid machines that play music for a long period before the beep or those that have an overabundance of clicks before the real beep comes on. These only will aggravate your customers.
• Remind callers to leave important information like their name, phone number, the best time to call back and whether they are calling for someone specific. Also let callers know how soon they can expect to hear back from you.
• Make sure there is plenty of paper and pens at the site where your phone is answered, so your employee doesn't have to search for them to take notes or write down a name and phone number.
• If your employee takes a message and the caller must be called back, make sure to find out the best time to call back so that a fine game of phone tag doesn't ensue.
The telephone is an important marketing tool, both for qualifying leads and following up on sales possibilities, as well as for getting referrals and cross-selling. Make sure you and your staff are always professional and use good phone etiquette when you answer that next call!
Kay Pegram is founder of Kaymar Communications, a Playa del Ray, CA-based independent marketing services firm for companies in window fashions and other industries. Pegram's previous window coverings industry experience includes serving eight years at LouverDrape and as director of marketing for the Tempo companies.