Voice Mail - - Friend or Foe

"Only in America do we use answering machines to screen calls and then have call waiting
so we won't miss a call from someone we didn't want to talk to in the first place.”

- Yakim Smirnoff

You want to talk to John Smith at XYZ Corporation. You dial the main number and the friendly upbeat phone response tells you to select a number from their menu of options or dial the extension number for John Smith. You dial his number as suggested and you get his voice mail message - - sometimes curt, sometimes garbled -- sometimes very informative -- and frequently very low energy.

Many times this is your first impression with a new customer and based on the presentation (or lack thereof) of the message they may decide on whether they will want to be doing business with you or your company.

Examine the following survey data from a pool of 413 responses (out of 500) consumer customers within the home improvement industry who have responded to voice mail messages.

27% indicated that they are uncomfortable and feel foolish talking to a machine.

22% felt that most systems didn't provide sufficient time for them to leave their entire message.

61% indicated a sense of frustration and irritation at being unable to speak to a "live" person.

None of these create reasons for not using voice mail. They do however send up red flags indicating that these issues have to be addressed if voice mail is to be effective. The next aspects of the survey were even more revealing.

57% felt that voice mail instruction messages were often not clear and cited instances of those who "spoke rapidly" without clarity, or used unclear phrases when giving additional phone extension numbers or alternative parties to whom they could speak.

37% felt the use of phrases such as "You've reached the voice mail of John Smith" or "I regret I'm not here to take your message" or "Have a nice day" were cliché and had little to no impact on them.

68% of those surveyed said the messages were delivered with low energy which did not give them strong or positive feelings about the company they called.

Again, none of these conditions suggest that you should abandon voice mail in your business practices. However, it is a clarion
call for a more effective use of this vehicle.

Here are a couple basic rules to remember:

  1. With live, person to person contact, you get approximately 2 minutes to create a favorable impression -- on the telephone, you get approximately 30 seconds. However, with voice mail, the first 10 to 15 seconds may spell delight or disaster.
  2. You (your message) is interpreted as speaking for your company and a weak first impression may well impact future relations with the caller.

Here are some ideas and methods utilized by some of our more successful clients.

  1. Record your message using a script. Be clear and succinct. If your speaking voice does not lend itself to this, have someone do it for you. Above all, be sure your voice mail level is highly energetic.
  2. When preparing a script, stay away from conventional clichés. They don't help and they come off as amateurish.
  3. Keep your greeting message short, simple, yet upbeat.
  4. Be sure you clearly state your (and your company) name.
  5. If you apologize for not being available to take their call, don't use the phrase "I'm sorry". Instead say, "I regret I am not here to take your call personally".
  6. Ask for a detailed message and specify the time limit to leave the message.
  7. Ask the caller to identify the time of the call and the best time to return the call.
  8. Vary your message. Change it month-to-month and season-to-season. Some of our most successful clients require their personnel (and themselves) to change the message daily.
  9. Provide easily accessible information if they want to call you personally (i.e. "I'm normally in my office between 8 AM and 10:30 AM daily if you wish to reach me personally".)
  10. A small company should have only a few "levels" of voice mail (i.e. "Press 1 for sales, Press 2 for customer service - - and - - Press 3 to speak with John Smith personally)
  11. All your messages should be recorded by your phone system or computer. This will assist with both customer satisfaction, and follow-up. Like all efficient business systems, follow up is critical. Make a habit of responding to all messages as promptly as possible.
  12. Many of our clients do not hesitate to leave their cell phone numbers on their voice mail. While you may be reticent to do so, this will increase the level of trust the prospect has in you.

Remember, voice mail does not replace personal contact. It is an option and it is unwise to use this option to replace personal contact or avoid incoming calls which are perceived as problematic.

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