American Idle

Lately, my wife Linda and I have been thinking about doing some home improvements (don’t ask). And so the other day, I picked up the phone and called my friends over at Bank of America, to see about getting a home equity line of credit.

I pressed “1” to let them know I spoke English and “3” to let them know I wanted a home equity loan. I heard a few beeps, and then the following message: “All representatives are busy, please try back again later.”

Huh? I’ve called places and been told they were not open. And I’ve certainly called places and been told they were busy, but please hang on. But I have to say that this is the first time I’ve ever been told — by the second largest bank in the United States thank you very much — that my estimated on hold time was approximately forever.

Now the truth is, I’m not telling you this story from the perspective of “customer service stinks and nobody cares anymore.” No, that’s not my message at all.

I’ve worked in and with enough large companies to know that the people responsible for managing inbound phone traffic are neither stupid nor uncaring. In fact, in my experience, it’s just the opposite. Lots of very smart people in very large call centers around the world spend their working lives agonizing (yes, agonizing) over how to make your experience as a customer better.

The problem is, it’s just not an easy nut to crack. Between staffing shortages, upselling targets, government regulations and the requirement of matching a particular caller’s needs to the skill set of a particular agent (in real time, no less), it’s a miracle that anyone can ever help you with anything.

That’s life in a large company call center. Lots of calls, lots of employees, lots of training and lots of turnover. Lots and lots and lots of things that make it difficult to get the job done well, despite the best intentions of everybody involved.

You and I, on the other hand, don’t have this problem; as small business owners, it’s easy to provide great phone support. And when we do, we differentiate ourselves from our larger competitors who, mostly for reasons of size alone, can’t get out of their own way.

Which is why I’m amazed when I see the walls that my fellow small business owners build between themselves and the outside world. Rather than trading on their natural, bureaucracy-free advantage, they accidentally (and often deliberately) make themselves inaccessible.

And so with that in mind, I offer a few recommendations:

  1. Answer your own phone. I know you’re busy and won’t always be available, but if you’re sitting there and the phone rings, pick it up. I know one consultant who never (never) answers the phone, preferring instead to screen every call, only returning those messages that he deems worthy. If you want to develop a reputation as someone who’s unreachable, this is a good way to do it.
  1. Record a voicemail message with some life to it. Telling callers that “I’m either on the phone or away from my desk” is the voicemail message equivalent of “have a nice day.” It may have once served a purpose, but at this point it’s become so cliched as to be meaningless. Show callers that there are actual human beings inside your company by saying something genuine and friendly.
  1. Give callers an alternative way to reach you. I provide a pager number as part of my voicemail message, so that those who really need to get a hold of me can give it a try. It’s not 100%, but it’s a second option that often does the trick.
  1. Give clients your home phone number. I know, I know, what if they call in the middle of the night? They won’t. In six years of giving my home number to every single one of my clients, I’ve gotten maybe two calls at home, and that was only after practically begging them to call me if there were some kind of emergency. This is a great example of a service feature that costs me nothing, but which is extremely valuable to a client who simply wants the peace of mind that comes with knowing that I’m reachable.

Bottom Line: In a world filled with endless busy signals, on hold messages, unreturned voicemails and “please hold while I transfer you” irritations, you have an opportunity to solidify relationships with clients and others that can’t be matched by your large competitors — and that won’t cost you a dime. Develop a reputation as an accessible company (or individual) and always remember. . . some of those people are trying to give you their money.

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