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Alf's Articles

The Voice Always Gives You Away

by Alf Nucifora

Marketers should never forget that the portal to the customer will often establish the perception of the brand. How I'm treated on the phone, on-line or as I cross the threshold and enter the store will invariably pay a major part in defining my future opinion of and relationship with the brand.

Stereotypes notwithstanding, doing business by phone with most New York City denizens involves dealing with a brusque, in-a-rush, almost, but not quite, uncivil manner. It comes off as loudly and as clearly on the phone as in the face-to-face. Interaction with most Indian-based customer service operations, the classic Bangalore boiler rooms, is distinctive for its politeness, bordering on obsequiousness, yet with a sense of detachment that whispers "I'm trying hard and I'm going through the motions, but I have no idea where you're about". And let's not forget the supercilious tech support "experts" who with a simple sigh, rushed response or vocal inflection are all too capable of communicating their disdain for the technically uninitiated. One can hear the rolling of the eyes.

A recent relocation to a new city has driven me to the phone to make arrangements for phone and cable TV installation, new banking service, utility connections, airline travel, home service contractors, etc. It's been an interesting experience. It's confirmed what we've known since the dawn of branding… that one can communicate just as fast and just as effectively with the voice as with the eye. And it has reinforced the belief that the inevitability of online commerce and service support will still not diminish value of the phone, for addressing complaints immediately (the preferred remedy) and explaining and resolving complex issues and concerns, (of particular relevance to the tech averse).

Tips for a happier phone experience

It all starts with the training, or lack thereof. Phone handlers must be made to comprehend that the phone transaction is more than a transaction, that it's a reaffirmation or refutation of brand perception, just as powerful as an advertisement and equally unsettling and potentially destructive as product failure. Simply stated, the phone handler can help make or break the brand, if not the repeat purchase.

  • Hitting the "help" button: Educate your customer service personnel, particularly tech support, about the detail behind the product, service or offer. We can tell when they don't know the answers, and the long pauses on mute only confirm the fear. We, the impatient customers, don't have the time or forbearance to wait while the service rep learns the system, or the patience to deal with the limited ability of the person at the other end of the phone to resolve the issue.
  • Enough of the false solicitude: I appreciate small talk as much as the next person, but the rote "How are you today?" or "Did I handle everything to your satisfaction?" grate when I know that the inquiry is a company mandate, not an expression of true personal feeling.
  • The first name is earned, not forfeited: Stop demanding my first name. I reserve its use for those I know and who deserve it. Old fashioned courtesy and respect dictates that I be acknowledged as "Mr. Nucifora," not "Alf." You don't know me well enough to take that liberty. I'll decide if and when the time is right. If it's that important to you, ask for permission first.
  • Reciting the phone number…again: Why must we be forced to punch in or recite our phone or account numbers repeatedly? It's especially annoying when you're on a cell phone or driving. Computer technology is sufficiently advanced that it can track the number on the first pick up. It's known as Caller ID. What is readily available in the home should be equally available in the business environment.
  • How long on hold? Most times we won't mind waiting or we'll put you on hands-free and multi-task until it's time to talk. The frustration in waiting is driven more by the uncertainty than by the waiting itself. Tell us how long the expected wait time will be. Our need to plan our time is just as important as your need to optimally schedule your staff.
  • The music matters: The on-hold music should reflect the company or brand personality and put me in the right frame of mind for the forthcoming conversation or transaction. Better still, it should put me in the mood to buy. Recently, I was subjected to on-hold hip-hop for 16 minutes. I dislike this type of music. It's just not my style. What a way to introduce a customer to the brand.
  • Read the personality: Every caller telegraphs a personality type, from the arrogant to the meek, the "in-a-hurry" type A's to the dawdlers. Be prepared to quickly divine the caller type and respond accordingly. Where necessary, customize and improvise. Effective selling demands nothing less.
  • A supervisor please! Increasingly nowadays, callers are left with the distinct impression that they're deliberately being road blocked from authority. Understand that there are times when the answers aren't coming easily and the frustration level is rising. That's when it's time for the supervisor to make an appearance. Don't make it difficult to find one.

It's no longer uncommon to have a caller hang up and redial at the first indication of rudeness, discourtesy or incompetence. But why put the caller/customer through the trial? Ultimately, that very personal phone experience should be supportive and affirmative and help bind, not alienate, the customer to the brand. Never waste the precious opportunity that resides in the consumer touch, the phone call included.

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