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Returning calls is not just polite, it's good for business

There's no excuse not to return phone calls in a world where companies have to fight for market share


Every time you make a call-back promise to a customer, log it somewhere.

Every time you make a call-back promise to a customer, log it somewhere.

Every time you make a call-back promise to a customer, log it somewhere.

Alexander Graham Bell would turn in his grave. All the great ambassadors of customer service would be disgusted. Business owners and chief executives would be furious. I'm referring here to the bizarre reality where so many firms do not return customer phone calls. From 'not having time' to 'forgetting', to 'not having the answer' and being 'let down by somebody else', I've heard all the excuses. But none of them stand up to scrutiny.

The world has enjoyed this communication device since 1876 and while it has come through many iterations since first launched, every one of us has one, at our desks but also in our pockets.

I remember the local telephone box during my school holidays in Co Kerry. To contact Dublin, we'd wind a crank handle on the side of the telephone, to be answered by the local exchange which was 20 metres away in the post office.

The operator would tell us to hang up and wait in the box before calling us back minutes later with a connection. With childish suspicion, we were convinced that she was listening in on all calls. So we learned to wait for the click before starting our conversation.

And haven't we come a long way since? Now, we use telephones extensively in our personal lives and they are a basic tool of the trade for every business. Before the world wide web was a twinkle in the eye of Timothy John Berners-Lee, the phone was the revolutionary new channel that created and sped up business opportunities.

It still plays that role. And yet, I never cease to be amazed at how many times I experience poor telephone etiquette in business. There are two issues at stake here. One is the lack of professional courtesy and poor manners. What does it say to a customer when they have made an enquiry, and they don't get a call back? Surely their expectation of an on-time call back is reasonable?

In the past two weeks, due to an aching shoulder, I called three different medical centres to make an appointment. Guess what?

And I'll never forget the last time I was changing my car. As a genuine buyer, I visited a dealer and the salesman promised to call me back with a trade-in price. He never did, so I bought my car from his competitor. I appreciate that perhaps he didn't want my car.

Maybe he had too much stock of my particular year. But don't you think he should have called anyway? I wonder how his boss would feel about that? Wouldn't I be a fool to go back there again? I'm sad to say that this doesn't just apply to the medical and motor industry. It's going on wholesale across all sectors.

The other negative impact is the madness associated with lost sales opportunities. There are many organisations that I'm familiar with spending millions on marketing, to encourage new and existing customers to make contact.

And despite their investment in expensive and sophisticated 'customer relationship management' (CRM) systems, guess what again! I think it's business-criminal to see this going on.

Have we returned to the crazy Celtic Tiger years, where firms didn't have to fight for their share of the market? Some customers were even treated as a nuisance during that time.

Did the subsequent downturn and dramatic drop in footfall not teach us anything about how to value every lead? I have also experienced some companies that have a deliberate policy of asking all callers to leave a message with name and number, for them to then expect a call back.

This is not customer-centric. It's designed to enable the business to manage its workflows, not serve the customer when they want service.

Tips on the Basics of Telephone Etiquette:

1 Refresh your culture

This is a culture issue and if it applies to you, then you need to refresh your culture. Be sure that everyone understands the need to uphold these basic standards. Put consequences in place for not complying.

2 Do a root-cause analysis

In the language of 'Lean Principles', this is a defect. If this is an ongoing issue in your business, you might consider convening a cross-functional group to get to the root of the problem and agree corrective actions.

3 Set rules and train everybody

Make this a priority, and communicate your expectation and minimum standard to everyone on your team. Make it a rule that all customers should get at least an acknowledgment on the same day (or, latest, the following morning). Communicate this, and include it in briefings and training to all.

4 Log all calls

Every time you make a call-back promise to a customer, log it somewhere. If you don't have immediate access to an electronic device with CRM software or Microsoft Outlook, then return to an old-fashioned paper diary.

Busy offices and retail stores should consider having one sitting permanently beside the telephone. With a pen!

5 Fulfil promises

Recognise the negative impact of disappointing a customer and value the commercial impact of the missed opportunity. Only make promises that you know you can keep.

Manage expectations if you have to and don't say you'll call tomorrow if you know it'll take three days to address the issue. Then do what you said you'd do.

6 Leave a message

If you don't manage to reach the customer at the designated time, leave a message. But be careful about what you say in the message, particularly if it is confidential.

If you know the customer reasonably well, it might even be appropriate to send a brief text message to at least let them know you tried to make contact.

The Last Word

While all the points made here apply to telephone etiquette, the same tips apply to emails. It's a reality that we're living in an age where expectations for speedy responses have escalated. Don't get left behind.

One more thing. I have focused here on customers and the commercial loss of not following up as promised. But internal customers are also important. Don't develop a reputation internally or externally for not doing the basics.

Alan O’Neill, author of Premium is the New Black, is managing director of Kara Change Management, specialists in strategy, culture and people development. Go to www.kara.ie

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