Jim HughesWe’ve come a long way from service companies using a single phone line to connect with their customers. Now with email, voicemail, text messaging, VoIP, computerized phone systems, and smartphones, it should be easier than ever for customers to contact us. Unfortunately, the technology designed to keep us connected can actually push customers away. To be fair, it’s not the technology itself causing the problem, but rather how many companies choose to use the technology. Companies can keep the technology and their customers by putting some procedures and practices in place.

Answering Services

Anyone who has called about an insurance claim, a car loan, or tech support has probably been confronted by an automated menu. This pre-recorded message asks callers to make a selection from several options to route their call to the appropriate destination. Some companies use it to advertise their services, while others use it to make their companies seem larger than they truly are — a strategy that can quickly backfire when customers realize the same person answers the phone regardless of the option selected.

Automated menus seem like a logical way to help customers, but usually end up creating more frustration. So much so that there is a seemingly endless supply of Internet articles on how to bypass these menus and speak to a real person. In an industry where customers have dozens of other companies to choose from, you should do whatever you can to reduce their frustration, not add to it. Always use a real person to direct your customers to the people they need.

Can I Forward You to His Voicemail?

Voicemail is a great tool for companies to utilize when call volume is high and they are not able to answer every call personally. Unfortunately, many managers overuse voicemail. In fact, some managers rely on voicemail to screen their calls and never answer the phone. Never answering the phone may sound like poor customer service, but some managers feel that taking the time to answer every vendor and sales call would make it impossible to get anything done. Regrettably, customers are caught — and often times lost — in the screening process. The longer they wait for a call back, the more frustrated they become and more likely they will call another company.

The best way to get it all done and still take care of your customers is to create a schedule to handle administrative duties, and calls from vendors and customers.

Administrative time is spent completing the things that must be done for the business to move forward and should be limited to 1 ½ hours per day. This doesn’t mean you can’t do this type of work other times of the day, just that you will not be disturbed during this time. The customer service representative (CSR) answering the phone should advise the customer that you are unavailable and ask if they would like to leave a voicemail message. When vendors call, the CSR should advise them when you will be taking their calls, but should not give them the option of leaving a voicemail message.

Vendor time is spent fielding calls from people trying to sell you things. While this may seem annoying, there are products and services you need to be aware of. Limit this time to no more than an hour a day. Customers calling during vendor time should be asked if they would like to leave a voicemail. Vendors will be put through to your phone and will go to voicemail only if you are speaking to another vendor.

Keep in mind that some vendors will try to break your rules and even pretend to be customers. In these cases, take a hard line and refuse to buy their product or service. Your vendors will quickly learn when they can call you.

Work time is all time not assigned to administration or vendors. This is the time you return all voicemails and take calls from customers. Customer calls take priority over anything else you are working on. If you must be out of the office, customers should be asked if they want to leave a voicemail and you should return all voicemails promptly.

Can You Hold, Please?

It should be no surprise that people are not very patient these days. One call center study claimed that the average American hangs up after only 36 seconds on hold. With that being said, leaving customers on hold long enough to recite your on-hold message in their sleep is really not a good idea. Being on hold too long leaves the customer wondering if they have been forgotten or worse ignored.

Before placing people on hold, ask their permission and wait for a response. Some people hate being on hold and, given the choice, would rather have someone call them back or call back later. If you must put someone on hold, give them regular updates so they know they haven’t been forgotten.

Can I Transfer Your Call?

Transferring a call is a pretty basic task, but if the transfer goes directly to voicemail, the caller can feel like you don’t care about them. A better way is to use the warm transfer method, which is an electronic version of escorting someone to your office. Instead of using the transfer feature, the CSR should use the conference feature. This keeps both the CSR and the customer on the phone until the extension is answered. The CSR introduces the caller, gives a brief description about what is needed, and then exits the conference call.

If there is no answer, the customer is asked if they would like to leave a message. Warm transfers let your customers know that you really care about them and will keep them coming back.

Can He Call You Back?

We all get email we would love to ignore. A lot of it can be easily deleted. But, if it’s someone asking a question, we need to respond quickly. All (non-spam) email should be responded to by the next business day. Even if the response is that you have received the email and are working on it. Not responding to an email tells the sender you think they aren’t important, and if they happen to be a customer, you risk losing them to your competition.

Technology can help companies stay connected to their customers especially if the people communicating with them have the proper skills. There are many companies that offer CSR training that includes how to improve communication skills. The right skill set with the right technology is a profitable combination.

Publication date: 6/10/2013