Called Into Question
Automated attendant programs may save money, but is personal interaction worth sacrificing?

Randy LaBarbera, vice president of operations for All-Brite, a distributor in Jacksonville, Fla., decided that adding an automated answering service to the phone system would save a lot time and money. He researched several of the best automated attendant programs and finally chose one that suited his company’s needs.

“My thinking was that investing in an answering service would streamline our operations,” says LaBarbera. “Like most distributors, we have several departments and divisions, but we have a limited number of employees — I didn’t want our receptionist to be tied up just transferring phone calls.”

Most incoming phone calls are made by people who already know which department they want to contact, he adds. In fact, LaBarbera suggests that the majority of callers are probably repeat callers who know the extension of the person they’re trying to reach. “Why not at least give them the option of getting in touch with that person directly?” he says.

Getting Personal
In the end, however, the salespeople at All-Brite were afraid that they might lose new customers who would be turned off when they weren’t able to talk to a live person. “That personal interaction seems to be very important to the sales staff. I don’t think that any sales were lost by having a system, but that was the perception they had,” says LaBarbera. The company got rid of the automated attendant during business hours, but still uses it in combination with their voicemail program for when callers try to reach company representatives at odd hours.

The question of whether a small business owner should invest in an automated attendant program looks to be just a microcosm of the modern dilemma: new technology that makes work easier vs. traditional methods that make people feel more comfortable. Jan/san distributors, like executives in other industries, often decide to avoid the risk of technology trends. Although automated attendant programs have been popular since the early 1980s, companies like All-Brite believe that they still have the ability to alienate customers.

However, the opportunity to streamline operations and reduce costs is too tempting to ignore. For growing companies, there’s really no choice but to have automated attendant technology, says Fred Kfoury Jr., president of Central Paper Products Co., Manchester, N.H.

“Of course it’s nice to talk to someone, but most small companies can’t afford to have a receptionist just answer the phones 12 hours a day,” he says. “Unless you’re a big company, the reality is that it’s very difficult to have a switchboard person. Most receptionists who work for distributors in our industry do several jobs besides just answering phone calls.”

Kfoury agrees that customers may like the personal attention they can receive from a live receptionist. Nevertheless, as companies strive to make their way through the sluggish economy they need to find ways to save money, and an automated attendant is one way to cut costs, he says. “We’re in New Hampshire, a small state, and I think our customers around here really appreciate the opportunity to talk to a receptionist and ask questions, but in the end it was something we had to do. The cost is really the biggest issue.”

Depending on the type of system a distributor invests in, automated attendant technology can vary greatly in price — anywhere from $500 to $15,000 depending on the number of features, ease of use and quality of sound. Different systems come with a variety of options. Some programs implement a combination between a live receptionist and an automated attendant; others are a continuous cycle with no way to reach a receptionist. Some systems are voice-activated while the most common systems ask the user to access information by pushing the keys on the telephone.

Peter DeHaan has observed hundreds of different companies try many automated attendant models. He is the owner and publisher of Connections magazine, a publication based in Mattawan, Mich., that specializes in communication technology.

“The most popular compromise seems to be a system with front-end automation, but a back-end way to reach a live receptionist,” he says. Front-end automation means that the caller is first given the option of accessing company departments, voice-mailboxes or other information before having the opportunity to talk with a live receptionist.

Provide callers with the option of speaking with a receptionist right away, says Kathleen Sebastian, president of Intercultural Strategies, a consulting firm in Seattle that specializes in business communications and etiquette.

The way a phone is answered says a lot about the attitude of the company, according to Sebastian. “The message is clear — how much to you value my time? If a program is easy and efficient for me to get my problem solved, you show respect for me as a customer.”

No Way Out
A company that decides to implement an automated attendant system should, at the very least, secure some way for customers to reach a live person. Kfoury uses the analogy of a 1950s pop song to explain the feeling of being trapped in such a program; “The Kingston Trio used to have a song called ‘Charley on the MTA’ about a guy that rides all over town on the Massachusetts Transit Authority and can never get off — that’s how it is when a telephone answering program doesn’t ever let you get off and talk to a live person.”

Unfortunately, automated attendant programs that create a continuous cycle of computerized options continue to be popular, says DeHaan. “Providing a way out of the system is very important, but some manufacturers are actually designing these inescapable systems because companies don’t have time to talk to all their callers. I do think it alienates customers.”

Make It Easy
But just because callers can eventually reach a live receptionist, it does not mean the system is user-friendly. Most that have a back-end live receptionist still have too many layers of automated options on the front end. One potential example of this is the company directory which often comes standard with an automated attendant. Many small businesses are family owned and operated and have several employees with the same last name. If a distributor has eight people with the last name Smith then customers have to skip through several other Smiths to reach the correct one.

“I always recommend that directories go by first name,” says DeHaan. “Last names can often be repeated, and first names are also just a lot easier to spell. I sometimes can’t think of how to spell the last name of a person, and then I get lost in the directory.”

While most automated attendants still require callers to push a sequence of buttons, other companies in the jan/san industry have experimented with voice-recognition. Ecolab Professional Products, a manufacturer of cleaning chemicals in St. Paul, Minn., recently started using a voice-recognition system. The caller must first push numbers on the phonepad to reach the directory, but then the voice-recognition program takes over. Callers say the employee’s name and then answer “yes” or “no” depending on if the system selects the correct one. While such systems may prove to be easier for callers, they are sometimes not capable of distinguishing similar names.

“Speech recognition is becoming more reliable, so I think it will become more popular,” says DeHaan. “It has been tested by researchers for about a decade, but the real concern is how quickly the masses will warm up to it.”

There is a final option for business owners who are interested in giving their callers personal interaction, but are not able to staff full-time receptionists: outsourcing. In the past few years, hundreds of answering services have sprung up offering the value of live interaction with callers at a cost that is less than full-time employees. While these companies may hold the answers for some distributors, they also have the potential to frustrate callers as much as any automated attendant program, says Sebastian.

“The most irritating phone system I’ve encountered is an old-fashioned outsourcing service being used in lieu of voicemail when the latter would be far more efficient,” she says. A colleague hired an outsourcing answering service for his company because he strongly believes having a live receptionist is more professional than an automated response. The problem is that the answering service is not ever able to forward Sebastian to his voicemail, and they never know any more about his availability than she does.

When investigating an answering service or program, business owners are wise to give it a thorough test before going live with it on company phones. In addition, it is recommended to ask “secret” callers to call the company and see if the answering system is going smoothly and is user-friendly.

The key to implementing a successful answering system — live or automated — is having a clear idea about what the system’s purpose is for the employer’s customers, says Sebastian. There are hundreds of automated attendant vendors, and even automated attendant consultants who can help executives choose the system that best fits their needs. Business owners should first ask their current telephone service vendor about the opportunity to upgrade to an automated attendant or other answering service, DeHaan advises. After that, the local yellow pages, under telephone services, is a good place to check for who the best local vendors are. Many vendors that are already known for technology services, including software vendors, also offer automated attendant phone systems.

“A company must take a critical look at its entire customer care service and consider the specific role played by its phone response system,” she urges. “First ask these questions: ‘Who are our callers?’, ‘Why are they calling?’, ‘When do they call?’ and ‘What do we need to provide an answer these calls?’ Once you pinpoint your customers’ needs, you can allocate your resources in the best way to make them feel well-served.”

The definition of “well-served” depends much on the industry and on the needs of the customers in that industry. Options abound for distributors who are interested in automated attendant technology. Making the right choice requires a look at customer needs as well as a working knowledge of all the available options and costs.

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EPA Offers Purchasing Guides

Distributors searching for green purchasing information can use the new resources available at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) website. The site offers product-specific information about environmental impacts of purchasing decisions. Although the guides have been developed with government purchasers in mind, they are useful for distributors researching the eco-friendly products available, and looking for data on what customers might find attractive.

There are six, six-page guides available in an easy-to-use format on the Environmental Pollution Prevention Program website . Hard copies may also be ordered by contacting the Pollution Prevention Information Clearinghouse at (202) 260-1063.

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