The power of the voice

David Joseph urges companies to invest in preserving the endangered art of call answering

Businesses often under-invest in the quality of their telephone services and staff, and yet poorly handled customer calls can have a disproportionately negative effect on reputation and customer care. Far from being just administration, calls are an important part of the marketing mix – a bad call reflects poorly on your brand and can negatively impact upon the bottom line.

According to our latest research of customer perceptions, when consumers were asked, “what do you consider to be important about how a company deals with you over the phone?”, the most common response was, “that I get a human voice and not a voicemail or an automated menu.”

Being able to reach an actual person rather than a voice recording is a start, but it is how that call is answered that really makes a difference.

A phone call can often be a customer’s first contact with a business and – as the saying goes – first impressions really do count.  Seventy per cent of people admitted that they make enormous assumptions about how a business operates based on the quality of that first call, from whether all your staff are competent of doing their jobs to the quality of products, services and customer care that they are likely to receive if they choose to become a customer.

A bad call is the equivalent of walking into a store and being confronted with a uninterested, Saturday-boy lazily kicking his heels and trying to avoid eye contact with the customers.

Call handling is also crucial because of the reason why many customers choose to call a business.

When we asked, “under what circumstances do you prefer to phone a business rather than email or use a website”, the vast majority said that they most often call a business to make a complaint or resolve an urgent issue.

Clearly, if the majority of customers who call a business are angry or have a pressing problem then the call handling needs to be second-to-none. 

This is where many companies are getting their call answering badly wrong.
Over three quarters of customers reported that they had been frustrated by businesses refusing to apologise when things had gone wrong with a product or service. And just under half (47 per cent) being told that problems were probably their fault when they tried to make what they consider to be legitimate complaints.

Holiday companies seem to be worst at dealing with customer complaints, with 31 per cent of people saying they had experienced operators refusing to apologise, accept responsibility or help with problems, closely followed by utility providers, banks (21 per cent) and delivery companies (20 per cent).

Understandably companies don’t want to accept blame for something that isn’t their fault, but it’s important to strike the right balance so that customers feel that you are listening and doing your best to help them.

Acknowledge – Regardless of who is at fault, the company or its customer, an acknowledgement of a bad experience should always be made.

Apologise – this doesn’t mean that your accepting fault, but rather you’re acknowledging that your customer is unhappy.

Listen – listen to what the customer has to say, with as few interruptions as possible. If it is necessary to get clarification whilst the customer is speaking, explain to them that you’re just trying to ensure you have all the facts and that you’re not trying to prevent them from making their point.

Focus on the positive – what you can do, rather than what you can’t. Telling someone “that’s not my job” will only frustrate further an already upset customer.

As a quick-fix to the skills gap there are providers to whom you can outsource call answering that can ensure a good customer experience, or to use as an overspill facility when trained call handlers are busy or away from their desks.

It can also be an answer to the increase expectation of customers of 24/7 customer service. Small businesses especially struggle to maintain a round the clock service, but increasingly, calls are being made to businesses outside of conventional office hours.

Getting call answering right can also help with effective data capture.  Accurate data capture can be essential to many businesses.

For example, imagine being a building contractor that takes hundreds of maintenance calls a week from tenants. A good telephone answering team will take more than just the name and phone number. They can capture all the basics of the customer’s requirement, plus the details of the job, where it is, what time the tenant might be home. Good data capture, means happy customers and more efficient teams, contributing to increased profit.

In a world of smart phones it’s easier to think that we’re always in touch. However, what often gets left behind is the quality of that contact. When we’re busy or distracted with other tasks, having someone who can always take the time out to really listen to every call and deal with it immediately should be a high priority for all businesses.

Debbie Carter

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