“If You Know Your Party’s Extension…”

By Nancy Friedman

People often tell me, “I hate voicemail!” As we talk further, I find that it’s not really voicemail they hate, it’s the automated attendant. That dull, monotone recording that is supposed to “welcome callers.”

Is there anyone reading this who will disagree that the first voice one hears when you call a company sets the tone? Why on earth do companies put a dull, monotone, robotic message on their automated attendant?

In our recent survey of ‘What bugs you on the telephone?’, the automated attendant is now the second most frustrating ‘bug’ to the American public, coming in right after “being put on hold” which remains the number one frustration! So, let’s make sure that you don’t bug people in the way you use voicemail.

The Automated Attendant: The automated attendant is affectionately labeled ‘the groaner’ because that’s what most people do when they hear the lethargic, “Thank you for calling XYZ. If you know your party’s extension, please dial it now. Blah, blah, blah.”

If you’re the caller, it’s important to realize the moment you hear the “Th….” in “Thank you for calling,” you can normally press zero and bypass the dull, robotic, monotone introduction to the company. In most cases, you’ll reach a person. If you make repetitive calls to one person, learning their extension will expedite your future calls.

If you’re using an automated attendant at your company, please remember that you’re not married to the ‘voice’ that came with the machine. The greeting can be recorded to reflect the mood and style of your company, which by all standards should be upbeat, bright, and friendly.

So, one of the first things you need to consider if you’re using the automated attendant is to re-record the initial greeting that came with the machine. Have one of your bright, happy, friendly-sounding employees be your ‘voice of choice.’ Make it an ‘American Idol’ type contest.

The recording should be as conversational and friendly sounding as possible. Of course, it should be recorded with a big smile. Also, you might consider hiring a professional voice-over expert to record your opening message to your callers. It’s well worth it.

A friend of mine recently wrote her own automated attendant message and recorded the opening message to her callers herself. She made it sound as though you were on a theme park ride. Very clever! Part of the problem with the automated attendant is the dull, somber sounding voice. Call your own system and then ask yourself if that’s the voice that you want welcoming your callers. If not, re-record!

The Greeting: Do you feel as though you’re missing a few messages on your voicemail? It could be the way you greet your callers.  Your greeting to the caller needs to give useful information. If you’re using the standard: “Hi, this is Bob and I’m not here right now,” well duh, that’s not news. Re-think your greeting.

When your personal voicemail message greets the caller, you’re obviously away from your desk or on the phone. So use those very precious moments to be creative and give the caller pertinent information. No one wants to hear where you’re “not.” They need to know where you “are.”

Here’s a sample: “Hi, this is Nancy Friedman, in the sales department. I’m in a staff meeting until 3:00 p.m. Go ahead and leave a message. I do check messages often and calls will be returned. If you need me sooner, please call my assistant at extension 41, and she’ll find me for you. Thanks and have a super day!”

Most important on a greeting is to let the callers know when you will return. It’s nice to know where you are, but callers need to know when you’ll return. And it’s a good idea to always leave an escape valve. Otherwise, your callers are thrown into ‘voicemail jail.’ (Note: This particular tip does mean you’ll need to re-record your greeting daily. It is about an eight-second job that can be done from anywhere in the world.)

If you’d prefer not to do a daily recording of where you are, that’s okay too. Use a generic message. Start your message off with the positive: “Hi, This is Nancy in Sales. I am in the office all week and will return all messages.”

The phrase “I’ll return your call as soon as possible” is not necessary. It’s obvious. If you are one of those folks who just don’t return calls, then you’re fibbing! So if your voicemail greeting says: “I’ll return your call,” do it or don’t include it in the greeting.

Surveys indicate most people will leave a message if they hear you check your machine. Our surveys also show callers respond to a friendly, happy greeting much better than a blah, blah, dull one. So be sure you’re smiling when you record your greeting.

If you’re going to be out of the office for longer than a day, we suggest you let your callers know that. We’ve seen salespeople lose important clients because calls weren’t returned in a timely manner. They had left a generic “I’ll return your call as soon as possible,” and didn’t.

When you call someone and hear the “I’ll return your call as soon as possible,” you might consider zeroing out and finding out if the person is actually in the office. We’ve done that several times and found that the person left a ‘generic’ message but was in Hawaii for a two week vacation and didn’t bother to change his greeting or check his messages.

The Message: This is your opportunity to be great. Leaving a message on voicemail for someone is your electronic business card. You’d probably be pretty embarrassed to hand someone your business card with the wrong phone number, or one that was all messed up, wouldn’t you? Then why leave anything but a great voicemail message?

Remember, when someone goes out to lunch, to a long meeting or is gone for a few days and comes back to their office, they hear something like this: “Hello, you have 52 new messages.” Yours is somewhere in there. It needs to stand out. You have a lot of competition.

There are three kinds of messages to leave: poor, average, or great:

Poor Message: “Hi, this is Bob, give me a call.”

Have you ever had this one? You probably have. It’s maddening, too. Bob who? I know three Bob’s. And from where I’m calling, I’m unable to bring up his phone number. The poorest of the poor.

Average Message: “Hi, this is Bob, call me at 555-1012. I need to ask you something.”

So ask it – on the message you leave. Voicemail is asynchronous communication. Since so much information flow these days is one way, use your message to get the ball rolling, leave enough information to move a process forward. Chances are when the call is returned the answer will be included.

Great Message: “Hi, Nancy. This is Bob Smith, Acme Distributors. I’d like to get together with you to discuss the proposal I sent over the other day. There are some new ideas to talk about. I’m in and out of the office myself, but please call my voicemail and leave me a time we can meet, or call my secretary Debbie at extension 22, and let her know the time. Either way is fine. I look forward to seeing you. Again, it’s Bob with Acme at 555-10-12. That’s 555-10-12.”

The great message has all the meat necessary to do business. Plus, the phone number is repeated at the end, twice and slowly. Notice too, it’s clustered. We didn’t say 1-0-1-2. We used 10-12. It’s an important technique that makes it easier for the other person to remember your number.

Remember, the person you’re calling gets a lot of voicemail messages, so in order for yours to be ‘heard,’ be great – not average. Also, upbeat, friendly messages are far more apt to be returned first. So again, remember to smile when you leave a message.

Exercise your options. Various voicemail systems will allow you to play back what you recorded and offer an opportunity to re-record. Take that option. Don’t hesitate to use these options because it can save you a lot of aggravation.

Also, remember, sometimes people go on vacation and forget to say so in their greeting. Or their mailbox may be full. Check in with the receptionist and ask if the person is in the office, or ask the receptionist if your contact has an assistant you can talk with. Whenever possible, do leave a voicemail message, too. Since voicemail is obviously here to stay, we might as well make it work for us, not against us.

Nancy Friedman is president of Telephone Doctor, an international customer service training company, based in St. Louis, MO. Nancy is the author of four best selling books.


Voicemail Tips

  • Expect to encounter voicemail. Be prepared. Only 30 percent of all calls are connected to those you need to talk with, on the first try.
  • Don’t “wing” a message you’re going to leave. Be prepared. Have an objective. Know what you’re going to say. Messages without thought will sound amateurish.
  • Return all calls or have them returned on your behalf. There’s little value to having voicemail unless a message is returned. If your greeting says you will return all calls, then do it or remove the part that says you will.
  • Avoid leaving bad news messages on voicemail. Example: “Hi Nancy. This is the veterinarian’s office calling. Remember you dropped off Trixie this morning? Well….” (You get the picture.)
  • Ask for a call back time when leaving messages. A simple “I need to hear from you by such and such a time” can help. This is not a fool proof technique, but it does help. It gives direction to the listener.
  • Smile, smile, smile. And then, smile some more.

[From Connection Magazine October 2005]

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