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Business Observer Thursday, Mar. 5, 2009 12 years ago

Hold On

Listen to this: Communicating over the phone might not have the convenience of e-mail, but doing phone sales well is a key survival tactic for the recession, says one entrepreneur.

Listen to this: Communicating over the phone might not have the convenience of e-mail, but doing phone sales well is a key survival tactic for the recession, says one entrepreneur.

The age of e-mail has saved time and money for businesses and connected many, but it also has had an unintended cost: the loss of customers.

As more businesses use e-mail and direct mail, many tend to use the telephone less. Some companies don't provide a telephone number on their Web site or make it easy to find one.

But many customers still like a personal connection with those they do business with, a voice, a friendly tone for good feedback. E-mail does not provide it.

According to the Harvard Business Review, 55% to 85% of businesses will move to a new supplier without that friendly voice — even though they say they are happy with their current supplier.

The key: Personal contact. And knowing how to use the information they find about customers.

That's where telecommunications veteran Kathy Pabst Robshaw comes in.

“They need to touch a customer in many ways, if they don't, they could lose them,” says Robshaw, 59. “The phone is one way. It's a way to reach out. In building a business, it affects the bottom line.”

Through her one-employee, Largo-based company, Total Telephone Effectiveness, Robshaw helps sales teams, accounting departments, receptionists, chief executives and really anyone at a company learn how to use the telephone to retain or gain customers.

“I take the 50,000-square-foot view,” Robshaw says. “It's not just sales, but how they are saying it. We look at the entire business.”

Robshaw's entrepreneurial life began with Total Telephone in 2007. That followed 23 years working in telecommunications for companies across the world.

Robshaw learned a valuable lesson about the telephone when she opened the first business-to-business call center in the United Kingdom in 1973. The lesson: When you talk to customers, you learn all kinds of information.

“In setting up that call center, I realized the power of the phone, the grasp people needed to have on the business,” she says. “My passion grew from there.”

Many companies have gotten away from using the telephone because they have taken customers for granted, she says. But in reality, says Robshaw, the impression a company makes over the telephone can make or break its sales effort.

Common errors
What do people do wrong on the telephone? Often it is minor things, Robshaw says.

They don't answer the phone clearly. Callers don't understand the name or purpose of the business.

Sometimes it is things businesses don't say. When recording a voice-mail message, an employee should make it timely, specific and business-focused. Something like this: “Today is Thursday. I'm in meetings all day, but I will call you back after 2 p.m.”

Front-line receptionists need to speak clearly and relatively slowly. Most callers don't hear the first five words a person says over the telephone.

The company also needs to have a process for connecting callers to the right person, quickly. The receptionist should never be stuck.

Robshaw compares receptionists to orchestra leaders. They have to know what has to happen to each phone call. They make the vital first impression for a company.

Companies also need to be careful about putting callers on hold. Studies show that callers are willing to wait only 20 seconds.

The sales staff needs to focus on the customers. Often times, there is more than one decision maker. Up to five people can affect the sale. So they need to look at how they are communicating.

Listening is key
One of the biggest things companies don't do on the telephone and in person is listen to customers, Robshaw says. Listening is difficult to fully teach or train, she says.

“I don't think you can teach it,” Robshaw says, “but you can show them how they aren't listening,”

Some employees actually talk over a customer who isn't finished speaking a complete sentence. Others do not fully listen, so they transfer the customer to the wrong area or waste the customer's time.

The accounts department is one area where employees have to listen politely. Customers call in wanting to clarify their bills.

Since some employees aren't in sales, they aren't considered front-line customer service people. But in reality, says Robshaw, they are.

“It can be a very emotional topic, clarifying a bill,” Robshaw says. “Listening and understanding help clear up what the situation is.”

One of the differentiators for Total Telephone is customizing the service. That sets Robshaw apart from cookie-cutter training that some competitors do. The pattern is usually a seminar, follow up training, test calls and a hands-on assessment. Then there's further followup.

Robshaw wants to expand Total Telephone and that means adding one or two people with a similar communications passion to do seminars and training.

Long-distance training is also likely because companies are not spending as much money on travel.

Robshaw will continue to ask companies to measure where their business comes from. If a company has 100 customers spending $1,000 each, they can increase that 20% by getting to know those customers and their needs and by giving them personal service, she says.

“They are easily able to do that by just getting an understanding of the impact of personal connection,” Robshaw says.

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