What’s the future for the telephone call in the 21st Century?

Who remembers Bob Hoskins proclaiming ‘It’s good to talk’? When BT launched their TV advertisement in the early 90’s most businesses relied on the telephone, good old snail mail and face-to-face meetings to communicate with their customers. Now, 20 years later, we have email, SMS and other electronic media to communicate with all and sundry but the telephone still plays a major part in today’s business world.

In fact, where 20 years ago businesses might have had just two numbers (one for fax and the other for the telephone) there has been an explosion of telephone numbers with businesses having sales lines, customer service lines and direct dials for every employee. It now means small business owners need to think long and hard about their strategies to answer calls.

Here are a few things you might want to consider:

Should you advertise your business telephone number on your website?

One might think that the answer to this is an obvious one and that all websites should have a contact telephone. However, there are some considerations to investigate.

If you sell business to business (B2B) then the answer if a definite yes. Even though buyers will use email or your website contact form to make their first enquiry, some people will want to call you. Whereas we think telephone numbers should be visible across all business sectors it seems to be common for companies within the internet marketing world not to use phone numbers on their websites. They do all the work to get the search engines to find their sites and then they don’t publicise a number. To me it’s lunacy but to them it makes sense. I often hear business people say “If they want to do business with me enough then they’ll email me”. That view point is fine, but I can’t imagine the CEO of a publicly listed company lasting very long in their position if he or she felt it was acceptable to put barriers in the way of enquirers. At Office Response we are always open for business. And another small thing; when you do publish a phone number remember to answer the calls! I was looking for examples of business websites without telephone numbers so I’ve just searched Google for “Internet marketing Bristol”. I was surprised that the first three sites all displayed telephone numbers so as a test I rang them all. Would you believe that my first two calls went unanswered?

Now if your business deals directly with consumers (B2C) the decision to advertise a number or not depends on a few things. How much money are you making per customer? Over the many years that we have been managing calls we’ve had a fair few enquiries from companies where the average sale value has been so low that there has just been insufficient margin to justify the cost of call answering; either in house or by outsourcing it to us. Some business models just don’t warrant the cost of call answering. A good example of this is a great business called worldstores.co.uk. They are very smart internet retailers selling products as diverse as beds for hundreds of pounds to iPod accessories for just a few pounds. They’ll answer calls 24/7 on the bed sales line but you won’t find a telephone number anywhere on the iPod site. The sites are run by the same management team but they’ve made very different decisions about telephone calls based on the economics of the products they are selling.

Another thing to consider is how well known your brand is. Brands are all about trust and loyalty. Consider that you are indeed going to use the internet to buy a bed. Tesco sells them online but there’s no telephone sales line number on their site. They are doing away with the cost of manning a call centre over long hours and letting their brand do the selling. Unsurprisingly, the lesser known independent suppliers who are competing need to publicise telephone numbers to give buyers the confidence that the Tesco brand delivers. Many of our online retail customers find it hard to quantify the benefit we give them by having a 24 hour answering service supporting their online selling but they know it helps them to make sales by giving buyers confidence.

E-commerce businesses should beware of falling into the trap of thinking that everyone will order over the internet. Whereas lots of buyers are happy to tap in their credit card details others will want to order over the telephone if they are not comfortable about who you are or what type of service you provide.

What hours should you answer your phones?

Again this depends on who you sell to. Answering calls during normal business hours, and having an option to leave a message out-of-hours, is acceptable for most B2B businesses. On the other hand, if your clients work hard throughout the day like builders, publicans and hairdressers then you could well get a commercial advantage over your competitors by answering your calls not only during the business day but also into the evenings and weekends.

Of course, if you are expected to provide customer service during all hours (you may have customers like supermarkets or hospitals) then you’ll already be providing an outside of hours telephone point of contact. For the smaller business being available all hours can be a strain. An old wag once said to me “..some people work part-time, some full-time, then there’s the self employed, they work all the time..”.

If you are B2C then should you consider answering calls in the evenings and weekends as well as during the business day? We think you should and our call patterns support that view. 40% of the calls we handle for our clients are outside of normal business hours. There’s no doubt that the Great British consumer wants and expects to be able to contact the organisations supplying them during all hours of the day and every day of the week.

How should you prioritise incoming calls?

It might seem a bit harsh but the importance of a telephone call is often greater to the person making the call than to the organisation taking the call. So understanding that answering calls costs money you should consider what return you are going to make from different types of calls and then target your resources accordingly.

You can prioritise different types of calls in a number of different ways:

• Consider using some sort of a IVR call platform before calls are answered e.g. press 1 for sales, press 2 for customer services etc.

• Use unique telephone numbers for different types of calls e.g. for sales, customer service and reception.

• If your telephone system allows it, set up ringing groups for each call type to present certain calls ahead of others.

• You could also use the routing facilities of “intelligent” telephone numbers to ensure your most important calls get picked up quickest.

But how should you rank your call types? Let’s look at some examples:

New Business Enquiries - Spending money on advertising and marketing without answering your calls is like trying to fill a bath up with water but forgetting to put the plug in. The leads will go down the plug hole – quite literally ‘money down the drain’. You can recognise companies that maybe haven’t considered this if you pick up a Sunday newspaper and telephone some of the advertisements. Those that don’t answer have forgotten to put the plug in the bath! It makes sense to answer new enquiry calls but ignore existing customers at your peril.

Customer Service Calls - Deciding what impact your handling of customer service calls will make on your business profitability is another complicated issue. How unique is your product or service? If you are the TV licensing authority then you can get away with answering 50% of your calls confident that people will call back but for most commercial organisations this level of poor service would be suicidal. Commercial realities play a part in deciding how much you should invest in telephone customer support. If you are in a very price sensitive market you will not be able to invest in post sale support and even if you did would it encourage buyers to pay you 20% more when they are next in the market? It’s not for no reason that many PC manufacturers base telephone customer support offshore to reduce costs.

 

Without a full time receptionist, other than an answering service, what are your options?

If the cost of employing a dedicated full-time receptionist is too great here are two popular options that you might want to consider:
 

Voicemail - How did the world survive before voicemail was invented? Having the ability for callers to leave messages for you is very useful but if you are considering using voicemail within your business you might want to consider some of the implications highlighted by Office Response’s recently conducted nationwide survey. The answers from over 500 respondents’ reveal Voicemail and Answering Machine disadvantages:

• 52% of respondents said they won’t leave a message on voicemail if they call a business during office hours in response to an advertisement.

• 79% won’t leave a message on voicemail if they are calling to place an order for a product or service.

• 65% won’t leave a message on voicemail if they are making a complaint. You may only find out about the customers issue when they have become an ex-customer!

• However, 88% of the survey respondents said that they would leave a message on voicemail if they personally knew the individual they were calling.

If your customers and enquirers have a close affinity with your organisation then voicemail could be an option for you but it could cost you business openings as well.
 

Mobile Phones - You may want to consider publicising your mobile number as your main business number or diverting your landline calls to your mobile. This can work well for some people particularly if you are well known to callers or your business solely relies on you. However, first consider:

• How will you answer if you are up a ladder or in an important meeting?

• What happens in areas with poor network coverage?

• Will your constantly ringing mobile stop you making £100k a year because you are doing a £6 an hour job?

• Does the impression you give answering your calls make people more or less likely to do business with you?

Telephone Calls into the future

20 years ago few of us predicted email, tweets, Google, texting or 10 year olds with Blackberries. Who knows what the next 20 years will bring? However, Bob Hoskins was right and it's good to talk so despite the growth of all this technology the humble telephone call and the future of Telephone Answering Services looks rosy for a good few years yet.

By Steve West
Marketing and Business Development Manager
Office Response Ltd

Winners of Bristol’s Business of the Year Award, Office Response provide UK based 24 Hour Telephone Answering services, Outsource Contact Centre services and Out-Of-Hours Call Support Services. Call us on 0845 500 150 or visit us at www.office-response.co.uk