Hanging up on your business

Why missed calls can cost you customers and referrals.

If you’re running a small business, answering phone calls can be challenging while managing the many competing priorities for your time. Calls can come in at inopportune times, disrupting other activities, and consuming long periods of unplanned time, putting a serious dent in your productivity, if you’re not careful.

For some small business owners, letting calls go to an answering machine is so much easier. However, could phone phobia and unmanaged phone time be harming the performance and reputation of your business?

According to our latest research, it very well might. The Management of Inbound Phone Calls survey asked more than 1000 individuals how they felt about the way businesses – particularly small businesses – handled their phone inquiries. It found that 8 in every 10 Aussies will take their business elsewhere if they have a bad customer experience on the phone. That’s a significant and direct impact on your business’ performance, and proof of the old adage that “first impressions DO count.”

Nor is this potential damage limited to your existing customers. Out of those we surveyed, 83 per cent of them said that they would tell their friends and family to avoid a business if it didn’t handle their calls well. In other words, a slipshod attitude to phone inquiries could cost you both current and future business.

All businesses depend on the quality of their customer service to survive and thrive, whether they’re sole traders or ASX-listed enterprises. The humble phone call remains one of the main “faces” of any business, and is often the most personable of customer service channels – which also means the employee answering the phone needs to be fully devoted to helping the customer reach their desired outcome. A poorly-handled phone query is a wasted opportunity to turn a customer into an advocate of your business.

For small businesses, though, it’s a bit of a big ask to have someone dedicated to handling phone enquiries – especially if that someone ends up being yourself. Here are five tips to deliver world-class customer service on the phone without breaking the bank (or your peace of mind!):

Outsource

If you can’t do it, get someone else to. A growing number of Australian businesses are taking advantage of virtual reception services, where any call to your business number is forwarded to a dedicated bank of phone operators who then take messages, refer calls, and can even provide answers to FAQs on the fly. Customers get an immediate and professional response, while you and your employees can keep focusing on the core workings of your business.

Just don’t fall into the trap of the overseas call centre: almost half the people we surveyed said they’d hang up if the person answering their call wasn’t located in Australia. At OfficeHQ, we make sure all our virtual receptionists are based and trained in Australia for precisely that reason.

Brief your staff

Our survey found that two-thirds of Australians will hang up and call a competitor if a customer rep can’t answer all their questions over the phone. So if you have a number of employees or contractors who directly manage individual customers (tradies, take note!), give them a solid script or FAQ document that outlines answers for common enquiries. The best scripts include multiple scenarios for answering, redirecting, or otherwise managing the various ways that a call can go. These are also extremely useful when setting up with virtual reception services so that they can say more than “sorry, he’s unavailable right now”.

Put your number on social media

This might sound counter-intuitive, but more than 60 percent of Australians still say the telephone is their preferred way of contacting businesses. By making your phone number clear on your website, social media pages, and other digital properties, you give these customers easy access to their channel of choice and reduce the frustration of searching for hours for a phone number. And the less frustrated the customer is at the start of the call, the easier it is to get a happy outcome.

Don’t hire a robot

Outsourcing is a great way to give customers a satisfying reception on every call, but don’t fall into the trap of automated solutions or interactive voice responses (IVR). Our survey found that these were the second-most common irritation for customers when calling up businesses (the first was their call being forwarded overseas). Better to outsource or comprehensively brief your employees than put your customers through the stress of a robotic answering sequence.

Make your voicemail response clear

In your voicemail message, make sure that you clearly state anything which might be relevant to your customers. Hours of operation (including when they can expect to receive a return call) and alternate contact details (like email or SMS) are especially useful. A well-structured and detailed response not only results in customers leaving clearer messages, it also demonstrates your professionalism by setting an expectation of when they can expect a reply.

With a little training and a little common-sense, you can set up a phone-answering system that keeps customers happy and doesn’t interrupt your regular business routine. The costs (even for virtual reception services – OfficeHQ, for example, charges as little as $20 a month) are minimal and the rewards (more repeat sales, new referrals) are high. It’s easy to get a hang-up about answering the phone, but you’re better off seeing how you can turn it into a competitive advantage and selling point for your business.

David Atkinson is the CEO of OfficeHQ.