Nancy Brunetti

I don’t like talking on the telephone. It makes me uncomfortable. That’s not to say I’m bad at it; I just don’t particularly enjoy it.

Telephones are a business necessity and, despite my personality-induced aversion, I spend a good portion of my day on the phone with clients. I like talking with them, helping them, contributing to the growth of their business but not necessarily being on the phone. It’s simply the method by which I can best communicate with my clients all over the country.

I appreciate the phone for what it is: a tool that makes my job easier. Unfortunately, for some people and so many businesses, it has become an altar at which we surrender our time, our value, and our customers.

In-person interactions almost always yield more (and better) results for me than phone calls. Many of my clients were acquired from hearing me speak or meeting me at a conference. Even in the age of digital communication, human connection is still the most valuable form of emotional currency.

Because of this, I am consistently baffled when I’m in a store or office interacting directly with a representative of a company who asks me to wait while they answer a phone call. How did I suddenly become less important because the phone rang? Why would the person who isn’t present become more important than the one standing right in front of you?

I understand the economic factors here for a small business owner. They can’t afford to have two people working at the same time, so the in-store clerk is also responsible for answering the phone. That clerk has been instructed to make certain that the phone is always answered and that customers should be greeted and assisted when walking in the store. Without clear instruction, there can be some confusion when both happen at the same time. Perhaps the business owner doesn’t know what instruction to give, so they give none – leaving the employee to use their best judgment on whether to deal with the in-person customer or the unknown entity on the phone.

Most people feel obligated to answer the phone when at work; it’s part of the job, after all. But to be slave to a phone when there is a living, breathing customer right in front of you makes no sense to me. We choose “curiosity killed the cat” instead of “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” We forego the known entity for the possibility of what could be on the phone. We wonder if this caller was calling to place a huge order or tell me that I won the lottery!

Unlikely.

Customers are the heart of every business. To give them the impression that they are unimportant when they come to you in person is rude and may make them think twice about continuing to do business with you. The phone call can wait. The caller can leave a message and you can promptly return it. If you make certain that the missed call greeting your customers hear tells them that they, too, are important, they won’t feel snubbed for having to leave a message. When you follow up promptly, they’ll be pleased to hear from you. That part is key, of course – actually following up. There is nothing worse than telling someone that their call “is very important to us” and then failing to return the call in the promised timeframe. These people too will choose to do business elsewhere.

What about online customers?

People who do business with you online don’t have the same expectations of personal interaction. If you do business online, you probably don’t need one-on-one contact (that doesn’t mean a less-than-superior customer service experience – a topic for another time). If you offer a chat option, someone should be available to provide that interaction with customers, but it shouldn’t be your store clerk; they may be helping a live customer and leave your online chat customer in the dark. An unreturned chat is the digital equivalent of walking into a store and finding no clerk available to help.

In-person customers should always receive our primary focus. Reward their effort in coming to you by providing the best service to them. Reacting to the phone when there are no in-person customers must be your next priority followed by responding and reacting to voice and email messages in a timely manner.

The point is that your in-person customers, your phone customers, and your online customers all hold potential for your business. Make certain that you are treating all appropriately according to this hierarchy of immediacy and you will maximize your number of happy customers.

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