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Improve Telephone First Impressions of Your Small Business

Customers form impressions of your small business whenever they come into contact with it even through a telephone. Protect your small business by controlling the impression you make through telephone conversations and your voice-mail system.

First impressions of your small business by telephone

Often, with no prompting at all, callers will tell you how they found your number. “John Jones suggested I call,” or, “I’m curious about the new whatchamacallits I see in your ad,” or, “I was on your website, but I couldn’t tell whether your business is open Sundays.”

If the conversation doesn’t naturally disclose how the person obtained your phone number, take a few seconds (but only a few seconds) to ask something like, “I’m glad you called us. We’re always working to improve our communications, and I’d love to note how you got our phone number.”

The responses help you see what is and isn’t working to generate phone calls. They also help you determine which first impression points bring qualified prospects into your business and which ones reel in people who are “just looking.” In the latter case, realize that the problem is rarely with the caller and most often with the impression point.

For example, suppose a real estate brokerage that specializes in high-end residential properties continuously fields calls from shoppers trying to buy homes in a much lower price tier than those listed by the realty company. Upon questioning, the real estate agents discover that most of the mismatched callers found the phone number in a regional real estate guide in which the company’s ad read, “We have your dream home.”

The agents realize that their ad message is appealing to the wrong target market. As a result, they amend their ad to read, “Specialists in fine properties and estate homes.”

To get the right prospects to call your business, be sure to target your communications carefully, help customers understand what you offer, make your phone number appropriately large and bold, give people a reason to dial it, and then be ready to treat every call as a valuable business opportunity.

All marketing communications — whether through advertising, direct mail, e-mail, networking, presentations, social media, or website visits — aim to achieve a single goal: a personal contact and the opportunity to make a sale.

When the hard-won call comes, don’t fumble the opportunity:

  • Answer calls promptly. Pick up after the first or second ring whenever possible. Even if you have a receptionist, train others to serve as backups, answering any call that reaches a third ring.

  • Transfer calls as quickly as you answer them. Be prompt about getting the caller to the appropriate person in your business. If that person isn’t available, say so immediately. Offer to take a message, put the caller through to voice mail, or find someone else to help.

    On hold is a dangerous and costly place to leave valuable prospects.

  • Get everyone in your company to answer the phone in a consistent and professional manner. “Hello, this is John” is an appropriate business greeting only when the caller is specifically calling John. Otherwise, answer with the business name in addition to a personal name.

  • Ask your phone company to monitor and report on your hang-up rate. Multiple rings, lengthy hold times, and voice mail responses are reasons for callers to abandon their efforts to reach your business.

Consider placing mirrors near the phones if your business relies heavily on telephone contact. People instinctively smile at themselves in mirrors because it makes them look more attractive, and a smile also makes a voice more attractive — more natural, friendly, and enthusiastic. You’ll be able to hear the difference, and so will the person on the other end of the line.

First impressions of your small business by voice mail

A personal greeting, a meaningful message, and a commitment to prompt, personal follow-up are all it takes to turn voice mail from a personality-free and sometimes annoying fact of life to a pleasant and efficient means to present yourself and your message. Follow these tips:

  • Record a greeting that accurately reflects your company’s image, update it regularly, and check for messages faithfully.

  • Make sure that your greeting includes your company name (or your own name if it’s a personal phone), indicates when you’ll return the call, and invites the caller to leave a message.

  • Encourage detailed messages. “Please leave a message of up to three minutes, and we’ll get back to you by day’s end.” If you encourage a lengthy message, the caller is more likely to convey complete information, reducing the need for telephone tag after the call.

  • Keep voice mail messages brief and friendly. Use wording that conveys your business purpose and personality, and offer no more than three options so callers can quickly jump to the option they seek.

    For example, your voice mail message might say, “Thank you for calling 20/20 Vision. We’re focusing on eye exams and frame selections right now, but please press 1 for our hours and location or press 2 to leave a message. We promise to call you back within the hour.”

    If possible, include the option of pressing zero to speak with a real, live person.

  • If you can’t fully respond to the caller’s request within the specified time period, call with a polite explanation and tell when you’ll have a response.

  • Voice mailboxes have limited storage capacity. Delete messages regularly to ensure that new messages can be stored.

  • Regularly call your own voice mail to see that it’s working and that the message is current.

The minute that your voice mail starts to sound like that of a big, faceless corporation, move quickly to put your small business personality back into it. Customers choose small businesses in large part for their personal touch. Don’t let voice mail or other systems encroach on that small business advantage.

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