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Don't leave me hanging on the telephone

Convoluted telephone answering systems? David Pepper has had it up to here with them
David Pepper: 'There is never a good time to irritate and alienate your customers'

Some of you will be old enough to remember Debbie Harry singing about 'Hanging on the Telephone' on Blondie's 1978 Parallel Lines album.

That was another era and our communications technology is almost unrecognisable from those simpler days. However, you have to ask: Has our far greater sophistication improved the customer experience? And you might answer that, as expectations have risen, disappointment levels have increased in parallel.

Why do companies use sophisticated systems if they simply make things more complicated and infinitely more frustrating for their customers?

Here is an example of what I mean: I recently had occasion to dial one of those notorious 0845 numbers about my energy bill. An automated answer invited me to give them my account number. The voice recognition system repeated the number back to me and invited me to confirm if it was correct. It was.

I was then invited to tell them my postcode. Again the voice recognition system repeated the postcode back to me to confirm if it was correct. And it was. I then 'enjoyed' the dreaded on-hold music, which was intermittently interrupted by statements such as 'our operators are extremely busy at the moment, but will deal with your call as soon as possible'; and 'we are experiencing very high call volumes, but your call is important to us...'; and 'our operators are assisting other customers' ... 'our operators are still assisting other customers ...'

Finally, just before I lost the will to live, I got to speak to a human being. And what was the first thing they did? Ask for my account number and postcode! I protested vehemently that I had already submitted that information via the voice recognition system. This prompted fulsome apologies from the operator and another delay while he set about 'retrieving' the information.

To give credit where it is due, from that point on my query was dealt with reasonably well. However, I had been subjected to the ordeal of battling my way through their 'system' - a valuable 6 or 8 minutes of my life - just to get to ask someone a pretty basic question.

So what has this got to do with the boiler and water heating industry? Actually, everything. Incoming calls from customers are a central part of business life and how we deal with them is critical; especially now when there is growing demand for replacement products and spare parts.

Hot water is vitally important to many commercial and industrial buildings; even more so these days with health and safety laws threatening to close some businesses who cannot provide it.

Resolving problems
Maintenance technicians are the people tasked with resolving such problems. They often need specific advice or support from manufacturers and they always need it fast.

What they don't want is some convoluted phone answering system that asks them lots of mind numbing questions before putting them through to someone who may or may not be able to help them.

There is a growing trend in our sector, which we at Lochinvar, have very deliberately avoided, to use automated systems that in reality can only deal with the most basic of enquiries. Contractors and distributors are becoming increasingly disillusioned. They can usually get a basic piece of information, such as a price, if they happen to have the specific part number to hand, but often their query requires a more detailed response.

Service providers are also consumers themselves and so should know only too well from their own experience how annoying all this can be. There is never a good time to irritate and alienate your customers, but now, when the economic outlook is so uncertain, is a particularly bad time.

At Lochinvar, we decided that the best approach was to put a human being on the end of the line and make it quick and easy for that person to put you in touch with an expert. It is not rocket science; it is basic good business.

As Debbie sang: 'It's good to hear your voice, you know it's been so long; if I don't get your call then everything goes wrong.'

// The author is managing director of Lochinvar //

1 March 2012

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