It isn't the most high-tech tool in the office, and it may not have fancy bells and whistles, but for many companies and organizations the telephone is often the first line of customer service communication. And many are using it badly.

When my father-in-law passed away a couple of weeks ago, the family chose a specific nonprofit organization for memorial donations, should friends or family be inclined to honor his life with a charitable gift. As a packaging expert all his business life, my father-in-law was involved in outsourcing work to a shelter workshop in his home city. The workshop became one of his pet projects, and he devoted time and effort to help them grow and flourish. So, it was fitting that we selected the workshop as the recipient of memorial funds.

I should have gotten the hint when I first tried to contact the larger nonprofit employment agency that operates the workshop. I had a deadline to post the obituary notice in the newspaper, so I badly needed to talk to a human being about the donation particulars.

After getting voicemail a couple of times, I finally reached someone after hitting "0." I explained what I was looking for, and my urgency, and the receptionist said I'd need to talk to a specific staff person but that individual wasn't available. I said I would hold while she located her—or anyone else who could assist me—and again explained my deadline and that I wanted to choose their organization to receive these funds. She had difficulty transferring me—maybe because I was calling long distance she surmised. The receptionist was not empowered or trained to take donations and wasn't familiar with the agency's protocols.

Losing my patience and needing to finalize other funeral arrangements, I said, "If your organization is interested in receiving memorial donations, then you have a half-hour to get someone to call me back, otherwise I will have to find another organization worthy of receiving these funds."

When the correct staff person returned my call, she apologized, explaining that the receptionist was a "temp." With this organization in the midst of a $3 million capital campaign, it was disappointing to hear this explanation, as if it excused the inability to be customer-focused or donor friendly! Since then, a friend of ours tried several times to call and make a memorial donation, and, not surprisingly, she couldn't get a human being on the phone. The family has since selected an alternative charity for memorial donations.

People Who Need People...

What does this tell us? It doesn't matter if it's a nonprofit organization, a small business, or a behemoth corporation—customers have a strong need to communicate with people to resolve issues that cannot always fall within the FAQ section of a Web site. Otherwise, why would a Web site exist with the "cheat" tips to get humans on the phone at large American companies?

Organizations that understand that the role their receptionists or customer service reps play in their first line of telephone communication are ahead of the game if staff are empowered to resolve issues and answer questions. This is the last place for a temporary staff person to assume a role.

In any organization that employs telephone receptionists, it's better customer service to ask one of the staff administrative assistants to handle the phones when a receptionist is sick or on vacation, and have the temporary staff help the administrative assistant with his/her work. In organizations where there are several administrative assistants, they can take shifts on the phone lines.

No matter how good a temporary staff person can be, he/she cannot possibly understand the entire nature of the business or department, who's who internally, or how to handle the needs of customers calling in. This isn't the place for organizations and companies to let people down—often on first contact.

Customer Service Training

It's worth the investment for organizations to send receptionists for customer service training workshops, even in small businesses and nonprofits. The return on investment should pay off with satisfied customers rather than irate or frustrated ones. In larger organizations, developing a customer service training manual and providing ongoing in-house training can keep staff fresh in their ability to serve your customers efficiently and effectively.

Involving receptionists in weekly organization or department information meetings can also be beneficial. The more they know what's going on, the better they can serve internal staff, the organization's mission, and their customers. Developing a communication link between staff and receptionists is imperative and can help telephone staff gain a solid understanding of the daily activities within any organization.

I remember that on several occasions, when I worked for an organization with 1,600 staff in many offices, the head office receptionist would receive calls of inquiry about services being held at her location. Often, she wasn't aware of them because internal staff hadn't informed her. Prospective clients would then have to wait on hold or be transferred to the staff person in charge. More often than not, they were left in voicemail limbo, and by the time the staff person got around to returning those phone messages, the services being offered that day were already over. Not only did the organization appear disorganized, it also lost out on potential clients.

To persuade senior management to prioritize and budget for increased customer service training, I hired a marketing consultant to conduct "mystery shopping" phone calls. I developed different scenarios and gave the consultant five locations to test. The results that came back were not that surprising. Answers to the same questions or situations varied from location to location. In some cases, staff returned phone calls on the same day; many not for 2-3 days, and some were never returned at all. Even though staff cannot possibly be experts in all department areas, they could have certainly benefited from a greater customer-centric focus.

Create the Internal Tools

Creating the internal tools will help establish protocols that can make telephone communication a marketing communications channel for external information. Here are five recommendations:

  • Establish an online shared calendar to help telephone staff keep abreast of activities and meetings of interest to external audiences.

  • Create a weekly list of activities and meetings and post it internally to the organization's intranet site or on a physical bulletin board where internal staff can see it easily.

  • Email the list to staff on Friday afternoons for the following week or first thing on Monday mornings. This can work effectively in small to midsize organizations or departments where staff can print a reference copy to keep at their desks.

  • Use a template that identifies who the target audience is, what the activity is, where to find more information online, and who the staff contact is. This can give your telephone staff the basics they need to keep on top of things. Here's an example:

    Activity/ Meeting Date Place Description Target Audience Staff Contact
    [Workshop title] 9-18/19 Head office For registered participants only; focuses on [topic]; registration deadline 9-14; available online at [www...]; PDF form sent under separate email Prospective clients, vendors and suppliers James Jones ext. 213; sales & marketing dept.
  • Ensure that telephone staff are aware of who is on vacation, out of the office, or off sick on any given day. Staff should be updating their voicemail with out of office messages, but sometimes they forget. When customers hit "0," telephone staff can look foolish if they aren't aware of who is and isn't available in their office or department.

It isn't time-effective for a staff person responding to a telephone inquiry to chase down his/her appropriate colleagues in order to provide prospective customers with accurate information. This can become a big time waster and reduce staff productivity in addition to slowing down customer response time. In this age of instant messaging and instant gratification, customers expect answers quickly.

Customer service excellence is part of an organization's or company's brand experience. To acquire and retain customers for the long term, telephone communication and quality service must be prioritized from the very first point of contact and in every organizational touchpoint. It makes good brand sense.

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image of Elaine Fogel

Elaine Fogel is president and CMO of Solutions Marketing & Consulting LLC, and a marketing and branding thought leader, speaker, writer, and MarketingProfs contributor. She is the author of the Beyond Your Logo: 7 Brand Ideas That Matter Most for Small Business Success.

LinkedIn: Elaine Fogel

Twitter: @Elaine_Fogel