Managing the Voice Channel

Have you seen the new AIG commercial that promises every inbound call will be answered by a real, live human? AIG's pitch is just an early glimpse of an accelerating, inescapable trend that will soon crash like a tsunami onto every customer-facing business on the planet.

To be blunt, when customers or prospects call you, they want to speak with a living, breathing person. They are looking for interaction, not automation.

Customer relationships are built up trust. A primary objective of CRM is creating deeper, tighter bonds between you and your customers. It just doesn't make sense to let a machine handle the first contact between you and a new customer. It makes even less sense to allow machines to handle critical interactions with your established customers.

"The sound of a real human voice is unique, unmistakable and precious," says John Stapleton, CEO of Who's Calling. "In certain business situations, there is no substitute for a live human voice on the telephone."

Live voice telephony is especially critical for organizations that sell or market big-ticket items with short sales cycles, such as automobiles, apartments, mortgages, and even cosmetic surgery. "Consumers tend to perceive these items as commodities. At the same time, they expect a very high level of contact with a knowledgeable salesperson within a very brief span of time," Stapleton says.

"When customers call you on the phone they expect a positive experience. One wrong word from you and they're calling one of your competitors," he says. "If you're running a customer-facing business, you must be prepared to interact with your customers in real-time, whether they approach you via the Internet or the telephone."

For example, up to 30 percent of inbound calls to automobile dealers are unanswered, trapped in voicemail, or handled so poorly by the person who answers that the caller hangs up. "Imagine the lost revenue that could be recovered with a follow-up call from a trained sales representative," Stapleton says. "We're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars annually."

Stapleton isn't just a voice in the wilderness. CRM guru Martha Rogers agrees--up to a point. "You need to consider how much it will cost you to have a live voice on the telephone and how much it will cost you if you don't," Rogers says. "The wrong call management strategy can lose you more than just sales. It can tarnish your reputation and create ill will."

That doesn't mean that every inbound call should be answered by a human, Rogers says. It means that a trained telephone rep should to be available to assist a customer who is angry, upset, confused, or in a genuine hurry to achieve closure.

"A situation arose on a Friday night that required me to call the company that manages my IRA," Rogers recalls. "Every number I called was answered by a very pleasant recorded voice asking me to leave a message and promising that someone would call me on Monday morning. Well, sometimes Monday morning isn't good enough."

Rogers, cofounder of Peppers & Rogers Group, assured me that her issue was resolved satisfactorily. But how many other customers have found themselves in similar predicaments that could have been resolved easily with a quick conversation?

"We need a happy medium between what AIG is promising and those fully automated systems that make it impossible to ever reach a live human," Rogers says. "American Express is a good example of a company that always lets you choose between a machine and a person when you call. Sometimes it's faster and more efficient to interact with the machine. Sometimes you need a real person. It should be up to you."

Stapleton and Rogers each raise valid points. Rogers wants to make the world a more customer-friendly place. Stapleton wants to make it practical for companies to follow up swiftly on missed opportunities to close sales or keep their customers happy.

To me, the overall message is clear: The voice channel is an essential component of any serious CRM strategy. Smart companies manage their voice channels for maximum effectiveness.

About the Author
Jeanette Slepian is president of BetterManagement, a Web-based executive education site for real-time business management information. Contact her at

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