Train your call takers to maximize their ability to schedule jobs.

Our economy is a dynamic force. It fluctuates based on several factors, not the least of which is consumer demand for services. If people think the economy is down or times are tough, they act accordingly.

Despite the fact that the economy always comes back, our potential customers and past customers become uneasy when they read about unemployment or drops in a reference used to measure the overall economy of the nation, like gross domestic product. Even though their situation is stable, they still become concerned.

What is one of the effects of this concern? These customers will attempt to economize, try to save money where they believe it doesn't make any difference -- such as in home repairs. They get an "I'll fix it myself" attitude and start thinking the savings they may get by repairing their own plumbing or water heater or air conditioning unit will put them ahead financially.

I have seen three significant economic cycles in recent years, all with the same characteristics: consumer concern for saving money, reduced spending on their home and more trips to do-it-yourself suppliers like the home warehouse centers.

Essentially, some our customers are going elsewhere for the service and repair work they need. Other customers are more discriminating in their decisions to have the work they need done in their home; they want the best value for their money, and they're paying attention to how they are treated. Their initial perception of the company they call for service may determine if they schedule the service appointment, to a greater degree than in the past.

Every Call Counts

For those reasons, it is more important than ever for us to make every call count. Today, we can't afford to have a customer service representative (CSR) or call taker lose a chance for business.

Do you know that it typically costs us about $60 per call to generate a customer? Don't throw that money away by not handling calls in the most effective way possible.

I help businesses with their call procedures, and in our training sessions we sometimes call the business, just like a customer would. Can you believe we still hear untrained CSRs tell prospective customers:

    1) "It's a small job, you can probably fix it yourself;"
    2) "You can get those parts at the local home warehouse center;"
    3) "Let me help you fix that..." and proceed to talk them through repairs on the telephone; and
    4) "Here's a firm price on that job," when no technician has examined the problem.
We have to realize that our CSRs are our primary sales team. The customer hears them first. Those first impressions -- good or bad -- control the customer's decision to do business with us.

Tough times demand professional telephone techniques.

Training Works

It is interesting that after training you can measure the increase in effectiveness of the CSRs. We don't expect our technicians to do their jobs on more sophisticated equipment every year without training, so why would we expect our CSRs to do a good job -- a job we need done right in tough times -- without some professional training?

I'll share some of the techniques from our "Winning On The Telephone" training program that we have found to work well. Then you can see how well your CSRs perform yourself by having someone call and ask a typical question you hear from customers all the time.

A Call-Taking System

An element of success in any business is consistency. (Everyone uses McDonald's hamburgers as an example: the same everywhere you go.) That key part of a system is certainly true when answering the telephone. If there is a proper and effective way to answer, then the techniques won't work unless used consistently, every time the telephone is answered.

Answer The Phone

I am always surprised by how often I can call a service and repair business and the telephone rings more than five times. Customers lose patience quickly and hang up if the telephone is not answered promptly.

Does that mean you answer it on the first ring? Definitely not. Our experience shows that customers are the most satisfied if your CSRs answer the telephone on the second ring. Answering on the first ring gives the appearance that you have people standing next to the telephone who are not busy, so they grab the phone instantly. It may look like you are desperate for business, that nobody else is using your company. Picking up on the second ring gives a better impression of your company.

Stick With The Script

A script for answering the telephone? Won't that sound canned and artificial? Quite the contrary, following a script ensures consistency and is, by far, the most effective way to answer the telephone, gather the information and promptly get on to the next call.

Just because your company uses a script doesn't mean the CSRs simply read it and sound uninterested in the customer's problem. Good (trained) CSRs can make the conversation lively, be interested in the customer's problem and efficiently process the call.

Without a script you are at the mercy of each individual CSR's ideas and mood for the moment. No standardization. So you cannot predict the results you will get. Some of the most important reasons for using the script is to be sure they get the data necessary for the technician to make the service call, and to get off the telephone so they can take the next call.

A great CSR who spends 30 minutes with each caller will close a high percentage of calls they take, scheduling appointments successfully on most calls. Unfortunately, they can only book a few appointments per day because they are spending too much time with each customer.

Insist your CSRs use a good script and stick to it. If you need a script, contact me and I will send you the one we use. That action alone may increase the effectiveness of all the people who answer your telephone.

Tone Of Voice

I have heard of studies where the tone of voice made a bigger difference in the message communicated than the actual words used in the message. That tells me that the CSRs can do a better job by properly using their voice to sound interested in the customer and enthusiastically ensure the customer that your company can solve his or her problem. The CSR who is excited about talking to customers will produce more business than one who sounds bored.

Avoid No

Customers hate to hear the word "No." If you are in business to serve customers, find a way to do what they want. If they need you to make a service call at 5 p.m., try to accommodate them. They will pay for service but you have to meet their schedules and needs.

Too frequently I hear CSRs say "No" before they get a little more information to save the call and schedule an appointment. If in doubt, book the appointment and then call the customer back to seek other alternatives if you have a conflict. Once the customer knows the problem will be fixed, they are more at ease.

Following the script can help here. For example, begin gathering data, such as the customer's address, and soon the customer will be more agreeable.

Get The Address

Getting the customer's address is actually a critical step in the telephone call. Once the customer gives you their address, they are more likely to schedule the service appointment.

Can your company get to their area quickly? Is it convenient? Easy questions, and the answer is always: "Yes, we have a technician nearby." For some reason, customers believe it will be more expensive if the technician has to drive very far. In fact, we usually have trucks all over town, so the address is usually not a limiting factor in making the service call. However, customers need to be comforted that there is someone close who can fix their problem.

Never, Never Quote Prices

If there is one technique that I see way too often that bothers me it is quoting prices over the telephone. That is a risky practice -- and foolish.

Do your CSRs know as much as your technicians about fixing customers' equipment, fixtures and plumbing? Can they do it blindfolded? How can someone, even an experienced technician, diagnose a problem if they can't see it?

If you quote prices over the telephone (except for jobs like simple drain repairs that have a fixed price), you are guaranteeing that the price will not be higher when the technician arrives. You have shackled his flexibility to sell the job.

At the least, the customer balks at the new analysis and accuses your business of trying to rip them off. So you lose business, the cost of the trip and your business's reputation suffers, too. Plus your technicians look bad and that doesn't do anything for their morale.

Allowing customers to diagnose their own problems and get prices from a CSR is a risk I never want to take.

Instead of quoting prices over the telephone, tell the customer what they can expect. Usually that is a fixed price for the diagnosis and a thorough evaluation of the problem and then a firm price to fix the job. With a technician on the site, questions can be answered and objections handled.

The technician shares the price calculations directly from your company's flat rate manual. Customers are comfortable with that process and they see what they get and how the job is described. More importantly, they know they are not paying any more than anyone else who has the same job completed at their home.

You can see from just a few examples that professional techniques can make a measurable difference in your company's effectiveness at processing customers' calls. The key ingredient in the system, though, is trained CSRs. Getting them trained is an investment that will pay dividends for your business.

In a slow economy the telephone can be one of the most important tools in your company. We just don't have the opportunity to make up the lost business on the next customer. There may not be one calling as soon as you would like.

While we weather this declining economy, let's use our teams of CSRs and telephones to gain the maximum advantage. We want to be leaders in the market, not just survivors.