Publication:Colo Spgs Gazette; Date:Jan 15, 2007; Section:Business; Page Number:41


Some firms bucking trend toward automated service


    “It’s a great day at A Total New You. How may I assist you?”

    That’s what callers hear when they dial the phone number for this locally owned salon and day spa.

    Two years ago owner Marla Knapp began teaching the upbeat approach to employees who answer the phone. Sales started ringing off the hook.

    “Guests say they love how we’re so friendly on the telephone,” Knapp said.

    In the age of automation, computerization and overseas call centers, some business owners are rebelling. They’re in the minority, though. Most businesses not only use automated systems but say they provide answers to callers’ questions faster and more efficiently.

    Knapp said she vowed never to favor technology over live, on-site employees when she started a small electrolysis service in the early 1990s.

    “I always had a receptionist, and when I asked people what made them decide to come to me, many would say because we were the only one that answered the phone. From that point on, I decided no ‘Push 1 or Push 2.’”

    Phone etiquette can clinch or quash a business transaction, said Jeannie Davis, a Denverbased trainer in telephone communication.

    “Providing a live person for callers says ‘We value your business, we’re here to help you, and we can do that now,’” said Davis, who has written several books on the topic.

    Corporate downsizing that began in the 1980s led to the elimination of the receptionist, Davis said. An in-house receptionist costs an average $4.50 per transaction, or call, according to Gartner Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based company that does customer service research.

    The cost drops to $1.25 per transaction for an automated phone system with a menu of selections and 65 cents a pop for a computerized system, such as the kind used for online banking services.

    Trevor Dierdorff, owner of computer company Amnet, said it proved more costly for his
business to not have a live receptionist. After he switched from an automated system to an employee, “our call volume definitely went up.”

    “Just from my own experience, if I got an automated system when I called places, I’d hang up because I wanted immediate attention and didn’t want to bounce through a system,” Dierdorff said. “How costly is that to lose that business?”

    Now, “we make an effort to be ‘high-touch,’ even though we’re a high-tech company because it’s important for customer service.”

    Ent Federal Credit Union senior vice president Jim Moore admits that not all callers are happy with his company’s automated phone system.

    “There are people who generally don’t like automated answer systems. That’s a personal preference, and we recognize that,” he said.

    To win those customers over, Ent, southern Colorado’s largest financial institution, has made its system fast, Moore said, so that it routes hundreds of callers daily to the correct department, where they can talk to a person in a call center almost immediately.

    “For most members, it’s proven to be a beneficial way for them to transact routine business,” Moore said, adding that the system achieves the goal of improving efficiency.

    The use of automated systems is growing. Esteban Kolsky, research director for Gartner Inc., estimates that threequarters of companies in the United States have an automated system that transfers callers to an interactive menu of choices. Of those systems, 60 percent transfer to a person — either in-house or from a call center — who can answer questions. The remaining 40 percent transfer to another automated feature.

    “The live receptionist is virtually nonexistent today,” Kolsky said.

    The love ’em or hate ’em attitude toward automated systems is giving way to acceptance, research shows.

    “The idea that computers don’t know anything and people want to talk to people is starting to disappear,” Kolsky said. A person who answers the phone may not have “the knowledge, capacity and skills to help callers, which makes it a worse condition than a computer that has access to those resources,” he said.

    And while several studies, including one by Random Lengths, show that about 75 percent of the public prefers a live receptionist over an automated system, Kolsky said surveys also conclude that automated systems have higher customer-satisfaction ratings than live personnel.

    “People start with the misconception that automation doesn’t work and is too cumbersome, when in reality, it gives you the right information faster,” he said.

    Industry consultant Davis questions whether callers are more satisfied with automated systems, many of which are notorious for long wait times on hold, confusing menu choices and a purposeful lack of an option to speak to a person.

    “Many organizations are measuring the quantity of calls rather than the quality of calls,” she said. “Many of us have become accustomed to pushing those silly buttons and have allowed ourselves to accommodate a process that we do not necessarily support.”

    An upswing in business tells Pat Kennedy, owner of Answer-Rite Telecommunications, a telephone answering service, that a return to live operators may be gaining favor. Business is so good that Kennedy is taking her Colorado Springsbased company nationwide this year.

    Business owners as diverse as psychologists, real estate agents, house cleaners and plumbers want a live receptionist answering their phones, she said.

    “Some clients have tried automated systems — but they usually come back to us,” Kennedy said.

    Austin Bluffs Window & Door is one of her clients.

    “It’s a pain to talk to a machine,” said owner Rocky Nolan. “Having a 24/7 answering service helps us get and keep business. A live operator can make decisions based on what the caller needs, versus spending five minutes punching buttons.”

    People are getting fed up with automated systems, believes consultant Pat Garner, who runs and specializes in executive suites and virtual offices, which include answering services.

    “We’ve seen a dramatic increase in inquiries, 20 to 1, since we came online in 1995,” she said. “People are looking for the real world, and it’ll be a question of the public putting pressure on the business community. A lot of callers can’t figure out automated systems, and they keep changing to keep you guessing.”



“We’re having a great day here at Rocky Mountain Copier. This is (name). I can help you.”

“The greeting goes along with our philosophy we’ve had for 36 years as a locally owned and operated business to deliver personalized customer service. We want customers to know they’re the most important thing.”

— Joel Farwell, sales manager

“Thank you for calling Eyeglass World, where we guarantee the lowest prices. This is (name). How may I help you ?”

“The corporate office asks that every Eyeglass World answer the phone with our slogan so that people know we do guarantee the lowest prices.”

— Veronica Mota, sales associate

“Happy New Year from Red Noland Cadillac. This is Jeanette. How may I help you ?”

“I vary my phone greeting depending on what mood I’m in. But you always have to smile when you answer the phone, because people can tell if you’re happy or not.”

— Jeanette McInaney, receptionist

“Top of the day. Thank you for calling HCCA, publishers of managed care information for Arizona and Colorado.”

“It’s an Irish greeting I picked up from a colleague years ago that suits my heritage. It’s become a distinctive trademark for our business and generates a lot of goodwill.”

— Jim Hertel, president, Healthcare Computer Corporation of America

“Thank you for calling The Broadmoor. This is (name). How may I direct your call ?”

“Requirements for five-star and five-diamond ratings say we have to have a live person answer the phone. A lot of people still prefer not to have an automated system, especially our clientele.”

— Lori Connors, telephone manager

“Thank you for calling the Sears Portrait Studio, this is (name).

    May I schedule you an appointment ?”

“Corporate teaches us this method so customers know that we schedule appointments. It’s not like they have to do that, but usually customers want to schedule an appointment after they call and find out what we offer.”

    — Brittany Williams, sales associate

“Good morning, thank you for choosing Bob Penkhus Volvo Mazda

    where nobody buys just one. How may I direct your call ?”

“We reiterate our brand in our greeting because it has high recognition in this market and has been successful for us.”

    — Jeri Howard, marketing manager

INSIDE: More local greetings. Page 3