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Phoning it in

July 16, 2012

I spend the majority of my life on the phone contacting prospective dealers. It's this activity that has become the impetus of this month's column. I am noticing what I consider to be a very disturbing trend occurring in business - not answering the phone.
It boggles my mind how a retail business can expect to grow, attract new customers and put forward a positive impression when anyone calling the business has to jump over hurdles like voicemail, extension phone trees and endure non-human contact. This is not an isolated case. It's become almost common-place in today's retail world. We have forgotten about the value of human contact and interaction. As the depth of technology increases, so does the need for high-touch on a human to human basis.
What irks me the most is getting an answering machine during business hours stating that "your call is important to us..." Really? Couldn't prove it by not having a live, human-being answer the phone. If you're busy with a customer, ask for the person's name and phone number with a firm promise to call them back as quickly as possible. Then honor your promise.
Consider this: every time a potential customer calls your business and cannot get a living, breathing human on the phone, that customer becomes ripe picking for your competitors. What compounds the seriousness of this issue is the fact that on an annual basis, every business will lose 20% of their customer base to another business! How are you going to grow your customer base if you don't answer the phone?
One of the most incredible phone experiences I had occurred in 2009 during the recession. I was tasked with contacting existing dealers and talk up an "Early Buy" promotion. I'll never forget how impressed I was, when I called a small hardware store located in rural Georgia. The young lady who answered the phone said in a voice filled with enthusiasm and sunshine, "Thanks for calling XXX Hardware. This is XXX, and I'm here to earn your business!" I was so impressed with how that employee answered the phone, I remarked about it with the store's owner. "We insist that all of our employees answer the phone the same way," he told me. When I inquired how his business was doing, the owner told me they were seeing positive sales increases at a time when many of his peers and competitors were losing ground. I have to believe that the way that store answered their phones was one of the reasons why sales were on a positive assent. Who wouldn't want to do business with a company with such a sunny, positive vibe? I certainly would.
I understand that phones are both a blessing and a curse for any business. Even with all of the other forms of technology available to us, the telephone still remains as one of the foremost business tools at our disposal. It's time to re-evaluate the importance of the telephone in our daily business operations. A customer's calling ... how will you answer the phone?