(This post originally appeared on Philly.com)
I know it sounds harsh, but as a small-business owner, you’re looking to save money and cut overhead in these challenging times and everything is up for consideration. So, if you employ a person to answer your phones, you’ve probably asked yourself whether that expense is worth it.
If you have, you’re not alone. Many of my clients nowadays are wondering whether they should eliminate the receptionist position and fully automate their phone systems, particularly when there are so many less expensive “virtual” services, such as VirtualPBX, Grasshopper and RingCentral.
Besides cutting overhead, the right system at the company can also improve productivity and customer service. Eric Bjorling, a public relations executive at Trek Bicycle Corp.,which has nine locations in the Philadelphia area, says his company’s automated phone system saves time and money. “For some functions [customer service, sales, accounting], an automated system can help callers get to their destination a lot quicker,” he said. “It allows us to log their calls in our customer relationship management system so that if they call back, there is a record of their communication and our service staff can help them in a much more efficient manner.”
These types of phone systems are easy to set up. My company has had one for more than 15 years. We pay about $15 an extension. Whenever a call comes to our toll-free number, the caller can choose from a menu of options and the call is routed to my employee’s cell phone or to a voice mail box where both audio and text notifications are then automatically sent. Each of my employees can administer a preferences for the phone online. The service we use, similar to other services, also offers web-based, voice over internet protocol (VOIP) phones for an additional cost if you don’t want employees using their smartphones to take customer calls. And although I don’t, you can still employ a receptionist to receive and then transfer all calls directly to people’s extensions.
Shaheed A. Smith, who owns SAS Geospatial, a surveying and geospatial services firm in Warrington, is in the same boat as I am. Like my firm, his company doesn’t receive a high volume of calls and he’s been considering a dedicated, fully automated phone system over his current setup, which has an administrator answering the phone, among other duties. Smith, in particular, has identified a dial-by-name feature as a potentially significant way to improve communications. “Our customers seem to have a lot of difficulties reaching us directly without one.”
But not every small-business owner agrees. For some, the person answering the phone is a critical part of customer service.
John Rowe is in that camp. Rowe, the executive director of UESF, a Center City nonprofit that provides housing services, says that his company’s receptionist — who has been with the company for more than two decades — is indispensable. “UESF is committed to helping people get out of poverty, and getting out of poverty is complex,” he said. “You need to be able to tell your whole story to a human being who can listen and assess the possibilities. It also takes courage to share this kind of personal information. So it’s essential that if you call UESF, the first person you meet is kind, friendly, and a good listener.”
Rowe has a point. With an automated system, you risk frustrating callers with a potentially complicated system or coming off as too impersonal. Even Bjorling admits that his phone system is not fully automated for those reasons. “A fully automated [system] can feel cold, disconnected, and frustrating if I’m not moving quickly toward my desired destination,” he said. “So for us, if none of the automated options apply to the caller’s request, we then get them to a live person with one button.”
An automated phone system’s appeal will vary, depending on the size of the business and the volume of calls received, according to Jon Frey, whose Center City firm Richmond Tech & Telecom installs phone systems at both small and larger companies. He has found that many of his smaller clients prefer to use a hybrid system, as Trek’s Bjorling does. Frey says that most of these businesses take advantage of an auto-attendant (also known as a virtual receptionist) to supplement their receptionist, such as during periods of high call volume. He recommends this type of setup for most of his customers who prefer to answer their calls live.
So it’s true that virtual and automated phone systems can help cut overhead, and that’s of prime importance right now to many small-business owners. But the economic downturn that we’re experiencing won’t last forever. And as customers start coming back, your company will want to make sure not only that their questions are quickly answered but also that relationships are formed. For some, the best way to achieve that goal is to have a live human on the other end of the line.
“We have never thought of replacing our receptionist with an automated system,” Rowe said. “It’s just not how we operate.”