Monday, May 16, 2011

The Power of the Welcome

Best-selling author and consultant Harry Beckwith writes, "In our work, we have found that the first five seconds--the greeting, the welcome, the receptionist's answer--influence customer satisfaction more than any other act. Clients love feeling welcome."

So how's your welcome? In my experience, few firms in our business give much importance to it. Think about it: Who's the lowest paid employee in your office? What's the first position to be filled by a temp when there's an absence or opening in the administrative group? Is it surprising, then, that the person answering the phone often comes across as unfriendly, indifferent, or unfamiliar with the firm and its clients?

Worse still, many firms have substituted recorded messages for a live receptionist. Even the recorded voice usually sounds unfriendly! Then if you don't know the extension of the person you're calling, you're forced to go through the inconvenience of punching in the name on your phone keypad. Finally, you're likely to succeed only in getting through to still another recorded message.

Perhaps you've sidestepped some of this problem by giving your clients your direct phone number. So how's your recorded greeting? Is is the same one your clients have heard for the last year? If the client needs to speak with you immediately, does the message give any indication of your whereabouts or when you might return the call? Or does the client need to transfer to the receptionist only to be told that she doesn't know where you are or when you'll return?

Any of these scenarios hit home? Let me urge you to give serious consideration to upgrading your firm's welcome. It could be one of the most significant steps you will ever take in improving your firm's client service. A few suggestions:

Hire the best receptionist you can afford. It's worth paying extra for a really good one. Your receptionist should be a people person who easily engages in conversation and makes others feel comfortable. This individual not only takes your clients' calls, but should develop a relationship with them, immediately making them feel important when they call.

Make answering the phone a top priority. The receptionist is often loaded up with other responsibilities--especially in a smaller office--so that a ringing phone becomes an unwelcome distraction. Make sure everyone understands that there is no more important administrative task than making clients feel welcome when they call. Don't cause your receptionist to lose sight of that priority by adding too many other duties.

Get rid of the automated receptionist if you have one. While convenient and affordable, these machines are a terrible way to make callers feel welcome. Instead, they send the implicit message: "We don't have time for you." Whatever you are saving in not hiring a receptionist you may well be forfeiting in lost business. Make every effort to have your phone answered by a live person who can deliver a great welcome.

Don't have temps answering the phone. Your client gives his name to the unfamiliar voice on the other end of the line. "Who? Can you spell that?" comes the response. Not a good way to treat a client! If you need to bring in a short-term temporary worker, I would advise assigning that person other duties and moving another of your administrative staff to handle the phone (hopefully someone trained as a substitute receptionist).

Consider eliminating call screening. Screening calls can save you precious time by controlling unwanted interruptions, but it's not a good way to warm your welcome. We've all experienced being screened--making a call, giving your name, and then after being put on hold, being told that the person you are calling is not in, contrary to what the receptionist indicated just moments earlier. Of course, you wouldn't treat your clients that way. But what about the prospective client who calls and is left feeling he or she isn't worthy of your attention? A caller is clearly made to feel more welcome when his or her call is put through without having to pass the "screen test."

Keep your voice mail greeting updated. Your voice mail greeting can say a great deal about your accessibility to clients. If a client needs to talk with you and gets your standard message--"I'm either on the phone or away from my desk"--what does that mean? Are you in the office or not? Will the call be returned in a matter of minutes, hours, or days? Is there someone else who can answer the client's questions? The best practice is to update your greeting daily, with some sense of your whereabouts and how soon you will return the call. If that seems too ambitious, you should at least update it weekly, with a summary of your availability that week. For extended periods away from the office and mobile access, be sure to designate others to respond to your calls from clients.

Always inform the receptionist of your accessibility. Few things can frustrate a client like being told, "I don't know where he is," when the client has an urgent need. When you're out of the office or otherwise unavailable, be sure the receptionist knows about it and how to direct clients seeking to speak with you (e.g., having them talk to a designated back-up or reaching you by another means).

Train all your staff in phone etiquette. It's a good idea to help all employees develop good welcoming skills. Besides answering calls forwarded to their desk, any one of them might answer the phone after hours. Teach them how to project a positive image over the phone, as well as the mechanics of forwarding calls.

Give attention to how your office impacts visitors. Imagine yourself in the place of a client visiting your office. What kind of impression do you think the client will take away from that experience? Does the receptionist offer a warm, friendly greeting? Is the receptionist anywhere to be found? What kind of immediate impression does your lobby convey? What about the rest of your office? Assess what improvements need to be made to make a client's visit more positive.

Finally, in considering how to strengthen your welcome, it's worth mentioning the importance of first impressions. The research consistently indicates that those initial impressions do tend to be lasting, for good or bad. The old statement is true and deserves your attention: "You never get a second chance to make a good first impression." So how's your welcome?

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