Up Your Business - May - 2021

What Did You Mean by That?

Up Your Business is an exclusive GEARS Magazine feature where I share stories, insights, and reflections about business and life.

There she was – the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. It was the Fall of my sophomore year in high school, and I was trying to work up the courage to ask her to the big dance. As we walked toward one another across the school lawn, I could feel my knees getting weak, my hands sweating, and my heart was about to explode. I’d had less anxiety facing off against oversized defensive linemen than I was experiencing at that moment. I’m sure my voice was shaking as I blurted, “Hi Lori.” Only to awkwardly follow that ever-so-cool start with, “Would you like to come to the dance with me next week?” How was that for a smooth transition?

Seemingly undaunted by any degree of social awkwardness, Lori replied, “Thanks for asking, but I might have to babysit my little sister that weekend. Can I let you know on Monday?” Which, as you may know, is code for, “Let me see if I get a better offer by next Monday.”

Since I’d never asked a girl on a date before, I was ignorant of the code. I was elated that she didn’t say no! In fact, it felt like a yes!

On Monday, Lori broke the news and my heart, “I’m sorry, Thom, but something else came up, and I can’t go with you.” The following weekend, at the dance, I found out that the something else was a guy named Bob. He was the big man on campus. Lori had put me off for a few days in hopes of a better offer like Bob asking her, and he did.

As I reflected on that story, I thought about how we often communicate in code. However, some coded messages are unintended. We aren’t aware of how they might be interpreted. For instance, I recently made one of those frustrating calls where you fight your way through a phone maze to get to a live person. However, this time the experience landed on me differently, and that’s what inspired me to write this article. I wonder how many of you are guilty of unintentionally doing similar things with your phone procedures. What message might you be sending to your customers?

First, let’s revisit my call to speak with a customer service agent at my WIFI provider. No surprise, I entered an automated call routing system. This has become so routine in our busy, hi-tech world that most of us, like sheep, have assimilated, resigning ourselves to the “system.” It went something like this.

  1. Thank you for calling “ABC Cable Company.
  2. Your call is important to us.
  3. To better serve you, please select from the following menu: a. If you’re calling about new service, press one. b. If you’re already a customer, press two. (Which I did only to get these choices.)
    1. We find that our customers can get many of their questions answered by going to our website and viewing our “Frequently Asked Questions.” You can also pay your bill or make changes to your account on our website.
    2. If you’re calling to change your plan, press one.
    3. If you’re calling for technical support, press two.
    4. If you’re calling to cancel your service, press three.
    5. If you’re calling for something else, press zero.

These seemingly endless mazes often end up with one of the following results.

  • Your call goes to voicemail.
  • You’re asked to hold for the next available representative or opt for a call back without losing your place in line.
  • You’re told that you’ve called at a time of high call volume. Then you’re invited to call back on days or times that generally have lower call volume.
  • And, most frustrating is, “I’m sorry, you’ve called outside of our normal business hours. Please leave a message, and we’ll return your call on the next business day.”

Who hasn’t been there? But this time, when I finally got through to the “appropriate” rep, my call was dropped. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” is a mild version of what I shouted loud enough for the company to hear me without a phone. Now I’m beyond frustrated. I’m compelled – no, I’m determined to get through so I can give them a piece of my mind.

When I finally got through to a rep, I expressed my frustration to him, finishing with, “I hope we don’t get disconnected this time.” His reply stunned me. “Well, we’re talking now. What can I do for you?” It felt like he totally blew me off. To add insult to injury, after I explained my call’s purpose, he put me on hold. When he came back on the line, he announced, “I’m going to transfer you to someone who handles that type of problem.” I was too stunned to respond, and before I did, he was gone, and I was back on hold.

Just for grins and giggles, let’s examine the unintended coded messages of the above phone routing system. What are some of the conclusions one might justifiably draw from them?

Thank you for calling. Your call is important to us. Really? If it’s so important, why can’t you personally answer it? Not to mention, you don’t even know who I am, so how do you know it’s important to you? How disingenuous can you be?

If you’re calling about new service, press one. I wonder if new customers get straight through to a live person?

If you’re already a customer, press two. If I select this choice, I already know I’ll enter a new menu or get in line behind new customers.

If you’re calling to cancel your service, press 3. Right… this means I’ll be placed on ignore this call.

If you’re calling for something else, press zero. Ah-hah! There’s the secret door to a live person. Rats! Now I’m back in the original loop.

Many of our customers find that they can get answers to their questions on our website. Refer to our list of “Frequently Asked Questions.” In other words, if you’re like many of our customers, you likely have a stupid question. We get these stupid questions so often that we’ve posted them on our website rather than taking the time to answer them personally.

I’m sorry, you’ve called outside of our regular business hours… Why the “heck” didn’t you tell me that before forcing me through that maze?

Look. I get that you probably don’t have a telephone routing system in your transmission shop, but, out of curiosity, I randomly called 10 shops across the country to see how they handled inbound calls. I pretended to be a customer, but I kept it quick and straightforward out of respect for their time. I asked, “What do I need to do to get an estimate to fix my transmission?” Here’s what happened.

One shop answered the phone after 5 rings. The person answering said, “______ Transmissions.” That’s it. No hello or other courtesies like giving his name or asking how he could help. The answer to my question about getting an estimate was, “We don’t give estimates over the phone. You’ll need to bring your car in so we can see what it needs.” But he didn’t invite me to come in or offer to make an appointment. So, I just said, “Okay,” and hung up.

I can think of any number of reasons why an unqualified person might answer the phone after 5 rings, but none of them excuse the lack of courtesy. Everyone in your shop should be taught to, at least, sound friendly and take a message.

One call was answered with, “_______ Transmission. Please hold.” Without hesitation, I was put on hold. Rather than hold, I did what I assume many others might do; I hung up.

Three calls went to voicemail after several rings. The messages were similar, saying, “This is ______ Transmission. We’re either with another customer, or you’ve called outside of our business hours. Please call back or leave your name and number, and we’ll call you back.”

Doesn’t that make you feel special? By the way, I wonder what their business hours are. Two of the three shops said that my call was important to them. Saying that didn’t convince me.

One other call also went to voicemail. The message was similar as above; however, they added a twist, “If you’d like to learn more about us or schedule an appointment, please visit our website at www.________.com.”

Isn’t that a terrific idea? Let’s send them to the internet where all our competitors are. Let’s hope they don’t get frustrated trying to navigate our website. If it’s that simple, why bother to speak with anybody on the phone anymore?

Four of the shops must believe in phone training! While they weren’t identical, there were these common threads.

  • They answered promptly – in 3 or fewer rings.
  • They answered with a friendly, professional greeting like, “Thank you for calling ______ Transmissions. My name is _____. May I help you?
  • When I asked, “What do I need to do to get an estimate,” in one fashion or another, these four shops did great. They asked reasonable questions, established rapport, and offered me an appointment. You know if you’re one of these four shops because I introduced myself and congratulated you for your professional telephone procedures.

I know this is a relatively small sample but think about it. Only 40% of the shops did a good job on the phone. Does that look like an opportunity for you or what?

Back in the day when I presented ATRA service advisor classes across the country, I’d call shops in the area the week before the class. Believe it or not, even back then, only about 40% of the shops had what I’d call adequate phone procedures.

It’s been said that you only get one chance to make a first impression. The phone is where 90% of your first impressions are made. Don’t leave this to chance, and don’t leave it to an automated phone system or a website.

The other day, I called the service department at the home office of my car insurance company. The phone number was on my premium statement; so, there was nothing unusual about this call, except this. The call was answered in 2 rings by a live person! I’m not kidding! I was so surprised; I wasn’t prepared to talk to the fellow who answered. He was friendly, professional and routed my call to the person who resolved my concern. It was sweet and simple.

I think we can learn from this. The first impression is also the most lasting, so, by default, it’s also the most important. Why not have your entire staff trained to professionally answer the phone in a friendly manner. Anyone should be able to invite a customer in for an appointment. Beyond that, they should be able to take a message and get the customer’s name and phone number.

I’ve never believed that inbound calls should be taken for granted or given over to chance. It’s your responsibility to get customers to come to your shop because yours is the only shop in the world where you can make sure they’re treated fairly and honestly.

About the Author

Thom Tschetter has served our industry for nearly four decades as a management and sales educator. He owned a chain of award-winning transmission centers in Washington State for over 25 years.

He calls on over 30 years of experience as a speaker, writer, business consultant, and certified arbitrator for topics for this feature column.

Thom is always eager to help you improve your business and your life. You can contact him by phone at (480) 773-3131 or e-mail to coachthom@gmail.com.