The Small Business MBA: Losing Business Over the Phone

I’ve recently decided to think about changing my book wholesaler, Ingram. I’ve been with them for almost ten years, and their prices are usually as good as can be obtained. But their phone service has deteriorated steadily. And they, like everyone else, have competition.

By “phone service,” I don’t mean the length of time it takes to reach an associate, which the company keeps minimal by using intelligent technology and a sufficiently large staff. And I don’t mean the speed of delivery, which is always within a week.

No, it’s the fact that an entire transaction of several hundred dollars can be completed without the associate ever saying “please,” “thank you,” “we appreciate your business,” or “we’re happy to be working with you.” Once upon a time, I heard those phrases consistently, and the courtesy kept me with them even when I could have obtained marginally lower prices elsewhere. We tend to bestow upon friendly, helpful, courteous people the benefit of the doubt. But we don’t extend any extra consideration when we feel as though we’re simply fodder for the sales artillery.

Your business will make or lose money every day not based on what happens in your private office, in your advertisements, or in your executive retreats. It will make or lose business-and is probably doing so at this very moment-based on the tone and content of your people staffing the phones. Isn’t it ironic that these profit makers or breakers are often among the lowest paid people in the operation?

You firm should have a standard script by which customers are greeted, their order taken, their complaint heard, their order filled, and their call ended. The proper phrases should be on the desks, on the walls, and in the hearts of your people. Try calling Tasca Lincoln Mercury. You’ll hear, “It’s a great day at Tasca Lincoln Mercury! How may I direct your call?” It’s done sincerely and consistently, and it doesn’t cost one cent of investment capital.

It does require a different investment though: attention and reinforcement from management.

It should be inconceivable that your people can deal with a customer and never offer a “please” or a “thank you.” Yet at bank teller windows, on the service phones, and even in emails, employees aren’t taking the time to make the customer feel welcomed or appreciated with the most inexpensive and consistent techniques available: common courtesy.

This is a strong economy. More people have more money to spend and invest than ever before. The key strategy for small businesses to is methodically build the “benefit of the doubt” by lavishing courtesy on customers while it’s easy to do and so affordable. If and when times do turn tough, and competition is cutthroat and prices are sensitive, those people whom you treated so well will remember your courtesy and professionalism. But if you treated your customers harshly or apathetically during boom times, they will certainly abandon you during rough times.

Every week-that’s right, every week-listen in on your phone lines. (Or stand unseen near a retail clerk who’s handling customers.) Try to establish this discipline:

  1. Every single caller (visitor) must be greeted politely and enthusiastically.
  2. The associate should say “please” and “thank you” on every occasion that the customer is asked to provide information or requested to wait.
  3. Build service quality and responsiveness into your management team’s goals, so that there is both incentive for reinforcing desired behavior and disincentive for ignoring undesired behavior.
  4. Ask your customers periodically to rate your phone courtesy levels, not just your speed of delivery or “hold” times.

In many cases, the service providers are so caught up in volume and details that they actually don’t know they’ve stopped being polite. When I mentioned the absence of any civility to one of the Ingram associates, she said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to sound that way.” I’m sure she doesn’t. The problem is that she has no reinforcers near her to remind her of what she should be saying, and management is not monitoring the situation adequately.

Money is being made or lost over your phones right now, in the form of prospects who will or won’t come back, customers who will or won’t increase their orders, and those who will or won’t recommend you to others.

Are you listening to what’s going on?