Is Voice Mail Killing the Economy?

The Economy is Choking on Cost Containment

By Kevin M

The other day, my wife called our prospective health insurance carrier, trying to get our plan initiated. She was greeted by voice mail and immediately placed on hold. Once she did get a live voice, she was placed on hold two more times, only to find that our paperwork was ?still tied up? somewhere in oblivion. The first two representatives she spoke with were clueless about our case, the third promised to follow up and get back with us. We?re still waiting.

Here?s a curious point: until this paperwork issue is resolved not only do we have no coverage, but the insurance company has no revenue stream from us.

Stop and let that sink in. You?re a business owner or manager, and your company has problems. Costs are rising and need to be contained. Staffing, perhaps your biggest single expense, needs to be pared in order to improve the bottom line. Technology is brought in to eliminate payroll. Your customer is now ?greeted? by voice mail instead of another human being, then routed through a telephone labyrinth of numeric multiple choices in the hope of finding the right person, the one who can help with their problem. Often, as in our situation above, that person is never found.

Question: what is that inconvenient arrangement doing to that other crucial component of your bottom line–your customers and the revenue they bring to your business?

The customer is not your problem; he?s your solution! But too many companies, overwhelmed with structural issues and over-reliant on technological solutions seem increasingly unaware, unconcerned or incapable of even recognizing the central importance of that relationship.

An ironic connection

How is it, that with a 10% unemployment rate, there ?aren?t enough people? to do all the work that needs to be done to keep the customer base happy and the cash registers humming? Is there a connection? Without a doubt!

One of the most successful industrialists ever, Henry Ford believed that his employees were also his best customers. Bigger picture, if businesses continue paring staff in favor of technology, more people will be unemployed and unable to be customers of ANY business. Meanwhile, customers become increasingly frustrated by company attempts to place technology where people used to be, and eventually decide to take their business elsewhere. What?s been accomplished?

Cost containment is the holy grail of business right now. Contain costs AND increase revenue, but mostly contain costs! At what point does cost containment become counterproductive? At what point does it cost more in revenue than it saves in expenses?

Customer contact has taken a big hit in the drive to contain costs. But customer contact is also where a business meets, satisfies and wins over its customers. It?s also the primary point of customer retention. Should we trust that to machines? Is that technological model even working?

The better companies don?t operate that way

They may be getting harder to find, but there are companies out there who conduct their business as if they actually value their customers. You may get an automated response when you initially call in, but you?ll always be switched to a live person who can help you with your problem. In this day and age, that?s close to money in the bank.

Some large companies that still operate with the customer in first place:

Verizon Wireless
Charles Schwab & Company
American Express
Fidelity Investments
Marriott Hotels

I?ve heard some people complain about the last three, but my experience with all has always been positive, especially when you consider the size of those organizations and the complexity of their respective businesses.

Verizon Wireless is the best example of the best example

Verizon is not the lowest cost provider but the service is virtually flawless. But the real payoff is when something goes wrong?like one of the kids exceeding their minutes. When ever that happens?and it will especially when kids are cell phone newbies?we?ve gotten a warm reception in customer service from an obviously empowered service rep who?s been able to moderate the excess in at least some way.

What is the message Verizon sends us when they respond to us in this way? That we?re their customers and they value our business! In a world increasingly dominated by dazzling technology, this type of business arrangement is like an oasis in the desert.

It?s often when things break down that you truly win your customers. If they continue to offer customer service the way they do now, we?ll be Verizon customers for life.

What?s the message for a small business or a salesperson?

As a small business or salesperson, customer care is your edge; it?s the reason a prospect will use your business rather than a larger one. Yes, we have voicemail, email, web applications, and all of the other marvelous technological adaptations, but unless you?re selling relatively inexpensive and low maintenance widgets, customer contact and care is where business is won and lost.

In an increasingly impersonal world, where people are often separated by- and because of-technology, the most effective business generating strategy is based on building relationships; only when a relationship is established does a sale occur. That can?t be accomplished by voice mail and numeric telephone options. It takes people on the inside of your business to make it happen.

OK, you?re a small business or a salesperson on a shoe string budget, how do you accomplish this?

  • If you must use voice mail, keep the system simple, and make it a habit to return your calls promptly. Don?t try to use VM as a way to make your business appear larger than it is. That?s a common practice and few people are fooled by it anymore.
  • Hire someone as an independent contractor to field your calls, paying either a flat fee per day, or per call. Hire a retiree, family member or stay at home mom?anyone with a pleasant voice and a fixed location during business hours?to take your phone calls. New prospects or existing customers will appreciate a live voice when they call in, and you may win or retain customers by default.
  • Accept and embrace that a big part of your business will be fixing peoples problems.
    Fix a customers problem and you?ll have that customer for life.

It goes without saying that there?s an entire customer base out there for whom price is the only objective, and it?s impossible to connect with them in a meaningful way. That IS true. But people who are only interested in the lowest price can never be clients?they might not ever be customers?they?re shoppers, and they?ll always be. If you have the lowest price, you?ll get their business?TODAY. Next month they?ll switch to a competitor who?s still lower. You can?t build your business on that type of customer.

However, for the customers who are looking for a relationship?for someone to be available and to solve an occasional problem?be ready to fill that niche. It?s an opportunity to convert a customer into a client–a person who will come back to you again and again?and that?s the basis of long-term success.

As a customer, do you ever get irritated by electronic responses to your calls? As a business owner or salesperson, can you think of additional ways to increase or improve direct customer contact? Do you believe the increasing emphasis on virtual customer contact and cost containment is hurting the economy?

( Photo courtesy of KaiChanVong )

7 Responses to Is Voice Mail Killing the Economy?

  1. I agree, it is very frustrating to not get returned calls etc. It seems like more and more companies forget to call back! I try to make every effort to call clients back same day, if not then at least within 24 hours.

    I also prefer email contact b/c it seems easier to get a faster response that way. People seem to type a response faster than dial a number and talk.

  2. Jason – Actually it really isn’t so much the technology itself, it’s the over-reliance on it, or the sole reliance on it.

    Technology makes a great supplement to human contact, but unless the business model is a simple one with a very simple product, human contact can’t usually be removed from the process without hurting customer service and with it, revenues.

  3. You identify a major issue here. The companies that make customer contact a prioritiy will be the ones that thrive and survive. I CAN PERSONALLY attest to quality of GoDaddy and Verizon…both reps have been patient, knowledgeable and well trained on people skills. A company can succeeed with voice mail as long as they connect you with a human (that knows something) in a very short turnaround. Great post!

  4. Ken – Back when I was in college, taking the requisite two computer courses we had to take back then (BASIC and COBOL programming) the professors told us that it was important to recognize that the computer is the slave and not the master. I think we’ve lost sight of that in the business world, not just with computers themselves, but with all sorts of technology.

    I’ve worked for some companies that were virtually beholden to dysfunctional systems that were costing them business. I have a feeling that more than a few companies are in that same situation. When a company holds a system to be more important than people they’ve lost sight of what their in business to do.

    Properly used, technology can only enhance business. Put on a pedestal, it can have the oposite affect.

  5. I hate the automated answering systems that companies use now. It’s difficult to get a person on the line. Annoying to say the least. How can they save money using this stuff? Seems like a time and money waster to me.

  6. They save money on the staff they aren’t paying to answer the phone. But my question is ‘are they losing more in customer revenue than they’re saving in unpaid wages?’ I wonder if anyone ever studies such things??? In this environment, a customer can take his business elsewhere, and he’ll often take it to where he can get a sympathetic voice to hear his concerns.

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