Is Your Automated Attendant Costing You Business?

The ongoing pursuit to cut costs and streamline businesses has led most organizations to replace phone operators and receptionists with automated attendants. And as most of us have experienced firsthand, this move has noticeably reduced access to salespeople and customer service help. Predictably, many companies’ sales have also been adversely affected, though the impact has been largely overlooked and ignored. At stake is the acquisition of new business, customer retention, and the market perception of the organization.

Industry studies have shown that a majority of companies have replaced operators and receptionists with automated systems as a way to cut costs and “improve” customer service. According to American Express, this automation comes at a cost, as a survey it performed showed that 67 percent of callers hang up out of frustration when having to deal with automated systems. Furthermore, BT Business, a phone and internet provider, reported that 75 percent of those who encounter voicemail don’t leave a message. And worse, Kissmetrics, a customer engagement automation company, found that a third of those who were unable to reach a human didn’t call back.

It is ironic today that many companies consider customer service a top priority, yet they make it difficult for prospective buyers and customers to communicate with them. With the escalating cost of sales, growing competition, and the need to acquire new business, companies should not make a practice of alienating their prospects and customers.

So why is this occurring? One perspective is that upper management was sold a bill of goods, being led to believe that an automated system would provide both increased customer service and improve the bottom line. Contributing to this decision was the thinking that implementing an automated system was a great way to show that the company is modern, forward-thinking, and innovative. I’m not suggesting that automated systems don’t have a place, but having them serve as the “face” of the company, providing the initial customer experience to those who call, is not a good operating philosophy if the system makes these interactions unpleasant or difficult.

Let’s look at a hypothetical example to help gauge the impact of automated attendant systems on business sales revenue. Consider the lost opportunity cost that might exist for a midsize company that sells a solution worth $50,000 to the company over the life of the customer. Consider that the company has a conservative sales conversion rate (lead to close) of 15 percent. Of the hundreds or thousands of sales prospects who approach the business during a year, if we assume that 100 go elsewhere due to a bad experience with your automated attendant system, doing the math shows an annual loss in sales revenue of three quarters of a million dollars (100 x 0.15 x $50,000). For most businesses, this loss is much more than the cost of a few operators or receptionists to greet and direct customers, regardless of the values you plug into the equation. And this doesn’t include returning customers or customers calling for help, impacting customer retention.

Given the possibility that your company may be losing business due to the poor reception prospects and customers receive, you might wish to determine if this is the case and, if so, to what extent. But how? There is no better way than by approaching your company as prospects and customers would. Then use the findings as the basis of corrective action. Things to check include:

• the main corporate phone number you share with the world;

• any phone numbers provided on your company website;

• the ease at which you can reach a sales or customer service rep;

• missing, poorly configured, or voluminous automated attendant navigation options;

• how often you experience voicemail, or worse, a hang-up by the system;

• the ease at which you can exit the automated system to reach a human;

• the response rate and response time for returned calls from voicemail messages left;

• the helpfulness of those you reach; and

• what occurs when a customer or prospect calls after hours.

If this task seems daunting and you are concerned about its objectivity and thoroughness, consider using an outside firm that specializes in this area. A comprehensive audit should check the items listed above for those who contact your organization and visit your website. It should grade the effectiveness of each item, document any shortcomings, and compute an overall buyer experience score that can be used to measure the improvement in customer experience and how you compare to the competition

A key to growing a business is not losing business, whether it’s knocking on your door or returning to spend more money. The reception that prospects and customers receive has a measurable impact on sales. Savvy business owners and managers should reconsider how their automated systems and customer-facing employees are negatively impacting the customer experience.

Erik Nebergall is president and CEO of Meta, a B2B sales support and prospecting firm that specializes in the hard-to-sell and in optimizing the front end of the sales process; it  performs Buyer Experience Assessments like the one described above. Nebergall previously published a Viewpoint on how sellers can double their effectiveness getting through to prospective buyers. He can be reached at erik.n@meta-us.com and 513-739-0155.

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