Answering Your Phone: Is it You or Memorex?

woman computer phone

Often our first interaction with our customer is over the phone.  If you had to rate that experience from the caller’s perspective – how would you do? 

A+ – you answer the phone personally with a warm greeting and a smile on your face

F –    they have several confusing options with a menu that goes on forever, none of which pertain to every caller

It is time to try on the shoes of your customer.  How do YOU feel when you call a company and are greeted by a machine that says “please listen carefully as our menu options have changed,” and so on?

Is the first thought “Oh no, here we go again.”

For me the worst is the company that thinks it is really HIGH TECH and you are suppose to SPEAK your options.  How many times do they get it wrong?  My blood pressure begins to rise and I haven’t even started the process of getting my questions answered.

How many times have you said to yourself – I just want a REAL person to talk to?

Imagine how your customers feel? 

I recognize that larger companies probably feel that an automated system that often separates the calls according to type and then attempts to provide answers without ever hearing a human is cost saving, but what does it do to the customer relationship?

Get Human is a website that offers a listing of companies and their customer service numbers and the shortcut secrets to help you connect with a real person.

When callers do reach a real person – what is the tone of voice? What do they say? Is their script so memorized that it sounds like a pitch and the words are slurred together so the caller has to say “is this ABC company?”

What policies or procedures do you have in place for telephone answering?


A Scary Make or Break Moment from Management

It is a scary time.  Companies are laying off hordes of employees.  Businesses are closing.  Sales are down.

Now is not the time to scare off those employees you’d like to keep around.

Your boss calls and says “I need you to be available for a conference call with the entire sales force next Monday to talk about the state of the company.  Think you can make it?”

What is your first thought?  Are you feeling warm and fuzzy?  I don’t think so.

So you call your buddies on the sales force and spend countless hours debating what the call could be about.

You spend the weekend looking over your personal finances – what can you cut out?  Maybe you even update your resume because who knows what will be said on the call.  How productive are you in the days that follow the request leading up to the actual call?  Not very.

Are we loosing our job?

Will commissions be cut?

Are they stopping our health plan – eliminating the travel reimbursement?   What could it be???

How many companies are calling conferences just like this and putting their employees through stressful anxiety?

Management just wanted to give you a heads up so you didn’t book an appointment, not realizing the pure h-e-double tooth picks they would be putting you through.

So how did this particular call go?

“This call is to talk about the state of the company and the economy.  I don’t have any agenda.  Any questions?”

After a few brave souls opened the discussion it turned out that the company was doing fine even though sales were down and the boss had no intention of making any cuts.  Whew!

I asked one of the members of the call if it had ever occurred to him that the call would go that way?

“No,” he said.  “It never occured to me that the purpose of the call was to reassure us.  The way the call was scheduled and with the economy and the automotive industry the way it is, I just assumed the call was about cutbacks of some kind.”

So how could that situation have been handled differently?

1.  If you need to give your employees significant notice before having a conference call, give them a scoop of the call or at least anticipate what their greatest fear might be and reassure them: “Although we’ll be talking about the state of the company, there won’t be any position eliminations or major cuts announced.”

2.  As management, prepare for the call by thinking through what questions your staff may wish to ask but may hesitate because of the venue.  Formulate answers and lead the call by saying: “Before I open it up to general questions, I have a few answers to the questions that I’m sure are on your minds.  Let me take a minute to answer those first.” 

3.  Offer to answer additional questions offline.  This boss did make that offer and it is a good way to allow people to ask questions they might be embarrassed or hesitant to ask in front of the group.

4.  Thank them for their efforts.  As a manager, you are only as productive as your sales team.  Make sure they know how much they are appreciated for without your sales team you are very likely without sales!

Conference calls and staff meetings about the state of the company are truly MAKE OR BREAK MOMENTS.  You have the opportunity to be honest, gain their trust and enlist their assistance with collectively being successful in the future.  Make sure you handle these moments with an understanding of how the information may be received by the employee.  Put yourself in their shoes. 

One last note – even the tiniest details matter.  When I worked for Pearle Vision we would frequently receive announcements or sale coupons in our pay envelopes.  One time the announcement came on pink paper.  People began to panic even before reading the notice (which was a dollar off coupon to a local establishment) believing they had received PINK SLIPS. 

THINK about the details before you DO.


Building Customer Relationships Over the Phone

I called for information about my son’s college fund yesterday.  In light of the current economic climate and the fact that my son leaves for college in less than eleven months – I had a few questions.

I can’t imagine being in the financial world right now.  As people work to stamp down their panic at the paper losses on their kids funds and their own retirement money, it takes a savvy customer service professional to keep the conversation positive.

I met such a representative yesterday:  Christina from the Education Fund.

She told me:

  • the fund had lost 25% more than I thought it had
  • I couldn’t move the funds now unless I used them this year
  • I couldn’t put the  money in less aggressive venues without realizing a real loss

Not a lot to cheer about in the conversation.  So what made it so good?

  • Her tone of voice – I believe she was smiling as she was talking – not in a patronizing way but in a friendly manner – her voice sparkled
  • She started with her name – and she used mine – she immediately took the conversation from an impersonal fact finding moment to the beginnings of two friends chatting
  • As we talked I was quoting a dollar figure from my monthly statement and she was honest:

“Deborah, I hate to be the one to bring bad news to this conversation but I need to be honest with you.  The number you are quoting is no longer the number on the account due to recent market changes.”

She could have let me continue thinking mis-information, but she chose to be honest and help me with decisions with the correct information.

  • When I asked a question she responded with “that’s a really good question” which validated me as a person – she didn’t make me feel stupid, even though the subject isn’t my forte. 
  • She gave me options – I didn’t feel backed up against the wall because she provided a number of different solutions
  • She invited me to call again and gave me her direct extension – an opportunity to continue the relationship instead of being treated like just one more voice in the phone que.

Did the call take any longer?  No.

Did she tell me what I wanted to hear?  No.

Did the negative information that she had to share send me into a panic?  No.  Her confident, friendly voice and honest approach were reassuring.

How did I feel afterward?  I felt like a valued customer.

When we talk with customers over the phone we have two choices:

1.  Treat them like just one more thing we have to finish before we can go home, or

2.  Share a conversation, listen to their concerns, needs and questions, be open, honest and friendly and build a relationship.

Which would you prefer?


A Text Message Moment

I was attending a meeting today when the facilitator received a text message.  The meeting format is a casual breakfast round table and so it was appropriate for her to quickly view the message while the rest of us continued our discussion.

I noticed that she did a little thumb dance over the keys and set the phone down.  A few minutes later, she glanced at the phone, clicked-clicked a few letters and again set the phone down.

The conversation was fast and productive so it wasn’t until she said “I’m having a make or break moment” that we all glanced in her direction to learn more.

“I just got a critical text from a client about a major change in his organization.  He’s looking for feedback and it has to be perfect.”

160 characters of perfect.


You have to be careful,” she said. “People who send a text are looking for an immediate response and the easy thing to do would be respond without thinking.  But the wrong message could do immeasurable damage.”

I wonder.  How often do we take the time to think through our text messages before sending.  How often do we hit SEND and immediately cry out “NOOOOOOOO!”

I admired her restraint.  She knew the person was waiting, perhaps impatiently for a response, and yet she took the time to think, write, review, WAIT a few minutes, review, revise and WAIT. 

The person at the other end of the phone ended up waiting less than 10 minutes for a response, however, because she was thoughtful and careful and reflection – when she hit the SEND button – she was satisfied with the message, the tone and the words.

Once again – a person at the cross roads faced with options.  She chose to use the opportunity – even in just a short little text message – to ensure she was professional and had thought through her response.

So how often do you text immediate responses without thinking through your message?  In light of new legislature in seven states:  Do you text while you drive?

A recent study said 70% of minors are texting while driving!  Talk about being at a cross roads and facing Make or Break Moments that could have catostrophic results! Check out this video:


When Did Humans Become Rare?

Not to belabor the whole “make or break telephone moments” conversation but today  Drew McLellan left a tweet that he’d called a company and got a human.  He said:

Just called a company — was surprised to hear a human answer the phone. That’s how rare it is today.

Wayne Hurlbert responded back saying:

Being rare also shows what a powerful customer service & PR idea it is to have a real person at your biz first contact points

When did humans become rare?  I can remember being in high school, or it might have been when I worked at the telephone company on the cord board (dating myself, I know) and the girls would comment that someday “robots” would do what we do.  We’d all scoff and laugh it off and yet…how many companies have the automated voice answering service that segments the calls.

I have even called residential phone numbers and the computer voice says “press one to leave a message for Mom and 2 for Dad.”


If the telephone is our first opportunity to establish a relationship with a customer – do we really want that impression to be a long laundry list of options – none of which lead you to a person?

If WE don’t like calling a company and hearing the automated options, what makes us think our customers do?

How can we make that first impression a memorable one. Memorable in a good way?


AM Trust Provides Telephone Automated Frustration and Wonderful Customer Service

This wasn’t a test.  I really wanted to find a colleague from my past, but the experience was just too good to pass up sharing.

I found someone that I used to work with via LinkedIn and according to their profile they work at AM Trust.  Of course LinkedIn doesn’t provide the phone number and so I looked on line – found the customer service number which was an exercise in frustration:  “push 1 for this and 2 for that” and then there were so many sub-directories I felt like it was the Journey to the Center of the Earth.

So then I used and found a local Cleveland number.   I called and asked to be transferred.  She said “okay”, hit a few buttons and my call was dumped.  Hurumph.

So I called back and a man answered and said – you need the operator and transferred me to a delightful conversation.  The woman that answered had a sweet, soft voice with just a hint of the south.  As in South Carolina, not Southern India. 

She asked me to spell the name “is that Kathy with a C or K?”  I spelled it with a K and then proceeded to spell her last name. The woman said “Oh, thank you so much.”  And she sounded like she meant it.

She searched and kept me posted.  “I’m typing it in but I just can’t find it.”

She could have said – we have no one here by that name.  I would have said “oh, okay” and hung up.  Afterall, I don’t know what office my friend works in or if she’s even still there.

But this woman was determined to connect me. 

“Let me try this again.”

I explained that we’d worked together and I wasn’t sure she was there but she said, well, let’s just see what we can do for you.

She was so sweet, I found myself apologizing to HER for taking up her time. 

In the end we both agreed that we were just not going to be successful.  That’s an important point – we were a team, partners in the mystery. 

In an age of automated frustration, this receptionist was a delight.  I enjoyed listening to her and could just picture having a cup of coffee and sharing family photos from our wallet.

What did I learn? 

In this case – I spoke with four people and a computer.  In each case I was treated and made to feel differently. 

  • The computer was a frustration. 
  • The first real person made me feel insignificant and then stupid because it took me awhile to realize that I wasn’t on hold but had in fact been hung up on. 
  • The guy made me feel like an imposition. 

All of these perceptions and feelings in just less than 3 seconds – in fact, in just a MOMENT.  I felt frustrated, insignificant, stupid and bothersome.

However, the last woman was a delight.  She was warm and welcoming and a wonderful representation of the company.  So what does that tell us?

That it isn’t the name over the door so much as the person you are having direct contact with that forms your opinion about that business.

I think that’s an important statement.  So – does that mean that one person in your organization can take all of the good will associated with your company name and flush it down the toilet?


Superior Customer Service and a Telephone

When we think of customer service, we generally think about face-to-face conversations, yet often our first contact with the potential customer is over the phone.

When I was first promoted to Regional Manager over the Greater Detroit Pearle Vision stores (back in the late 80s) I spent the first few months traveling the stores and getting to know the doctors, opticians and sales associates. 

During my visit the phone would ring and customers would come in and the associates would leave me to take care of business.  That was my chance to observe!

A Missed Opportunity

On one such occasion the phone rang.  Obviously, I was only able to hear the associate’s end of the conversation and this is what I heard – exactly what I heard:




The associate then turned back to continue her conversation with me, the phone call concluded.  Now, I may have jumped to wild assumptions but I’m going to guess that someone had called and wanted to know how late the store was open.

Here is a perfect example of a telephone make or break moment.  Let’s step in the caller’s shoes for a moment:

They planned to come to the store for some unknown reason and needed to know if our hours would allow them a visit on that day based on their schedule.  They found out we were open until 7pm.  We don’t know if that fit with their schedule.  However, if the basic need was to know when we closed – their need was met.

Their BASIC need.

What Information Did We Miss?

I don’t even want to start with the poor phone greeting or the fact that we didn’t bother to say good-bye and thanks for calling – let’s just touch on what we could have learned and didn’t, by just offering the fact that we closed at 7pm.  Just the facts, madam. 

We don’t know WHY they planned to come in:

  • To make a purchase,
  • To see the doctor,
  • For a repair, or
  • With a question

We might have been able to save them a trip if we’d asked a few clarifying questions.

If they planned to see the doctor, we could have an angry customer on our hands if we don’t have a doctor on staff in the evening.

If they needed repair work done – we might have been able to pull their records and had replacement parts ready or checked to see if they were in stock.

Worse yet – we should have verified our location – often people get confused, thinking they’ve called the Main Street location when in fact they’ve called the South Street store. 

In your business, what might you want to know before someone comes in to make their trip more efficient?  The price of gas has every consumer second guessing their need to make a trip and if your customer travels all the way to your place of business only to be told you could have saved them a trip:  oooh, we now move on to “angry customer make or break moments.”

How Can You Manage Customer Expectations Over the Phone?

The next time someone calls and asks how late you are open – how might you respond?

“We are open until 7 this evening.  Is there something specific you need help with?  Do you know where we are located?  Is there something I can do to help you over the phone and save you a trip? “

In the case of a location where a specialist (doctor, manicurist, mechanic) works shorter hours than the store, take the time to clarify who they hope to see to ensure you set appropriate expectations.

Make or Break Moments Mystery Shop Program

The telephone is the perfect place for mastering make or break moments.  Sadly, most moments are missed in an effort to hurry on to the next task.  I will be starting a new feature in which I’ll be calling different businesses and asking a few basic questions as a potential customer.  I’ll report here if the telephone experience was a Make/Break or Missed Moment. 

If you’d like to have your business “mystery called” send me an email with your business phone number and hours of operation.

What else might this associate have asked or said to help make the telephone moment for helpful for the caller?

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