“You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.” - Will Rogers
The secret to a successful business isn’t a secret: provide excellent customer service in every interaction, starting with the customer’s first point of contact. As a result, our team at Expertise.com was surprised to find that nearly 40% of businesses failed to answer their phone during regular business hours.
Mystery shopping is a core part of our selection process. To ensure that the businesses we list provide high-quality customer service, we call each of them up and ask the typical questions a consumer would want answered when hiring a company.
Our mystery shoppers grade businesses across four key criteria:
- Responsiveness: how easy is it to get a hold of someone to talk to at this business?
- Friendliness: what is it like talking to this person? Are they polite and welcoming?
- Helpfulness: how accommodating are they in answering questions about services? /referral e.g.
- Expertise/Detail: how thorough are they when answering questions?
In order for us — and consumers — to figure out if this company is someone we’d like to hire, we actually need to talk to them first.
Between September 2020 and January 2021, Expertise.com's mystery shopping team made 41,293 initial calls to providers in seven legal and home service categories. Of those, businesses only picked up 25,147 times on the first attempt — or 60.52% of the time.
Personal injury attorneys were by far the easiest to contact; two out of every three firms we called answered their phones on the first try. On the other end of the spectrum, roofing companies were the most difficult to reach; only half of those we contacted answered.
All of these industries rely on new customers contacting them. So what’s driving low call rates?
Why Your Calls Aren’t Getting Through...As a consumer, there are few things more frustrating than being unable to get in contact with a business you’d like to hire. In the age of the internet where the next company is only a click away, it’s easy to move on to the next option — and there may not be much choice in an emergency.
That said, here are a few common reasons a business might not answer your call right away and why it might be worth your time to leave a voicemail or try again later:
1. Technical difficulties.No business is safe from technological problems. Some companies use an answering service and if their number isn’t forwarded correctly, your call will never reach the right person.
Other businesses, especially small startups, may rely on a cell phone as their primary point of contact. Losing signal, whether because they’re driving through a valley to meet a customer or their cellular provider’s network is under repair, means they won’t be able to hear your call, let alone answer it.
2. They’re avoiding robocalls.It seems like it would make sense for a business to answer every incoming call, but every time an unknown call comes in, companies ask the same question as the rest of us: is this a robocall?
Even though 2020 saw fewer robocalls than 2019 (45.9 billion versus 58.5 billion), the average U.S. number receives 12.2 robocalls per day. As such, while we at Expertise.com know our readers aren’t robots, we also sympathize with small businesses who wait to listen to a voice message before spending their time on the phone.
3. They’re a small business.We pride ourselves on listing small, local businesses that provide high-quality products and services. There’s a minor consequence to that mission: small businesses often mean limited resources. A new or small business may not have invested in an answering service or a dedicated business line, and if there are only a handful of employees, they may run into the last problem:
4. They’re busy.For small businesses, it’s quite possible that the person answering the phone is the same person doing the work. If they’re on a job or consulting with a client, they’ll let new calls go to voicemail and keep their attention with their current customer.
Part of this also depends on seasonality. Every industry has certain times of the year where its service professionals are in high demand. If you’re trying to hire a roofer in September or a tax attorney in April, be prepared to try calling a few times before you get an answer.
...And What Businesses Can Do About ItEnsuring that customers can easily reach you is the single best way to strengthen your business’ reputation and grow your customer base.
Even if you’re certain that your phone intake process is perfect, here are a few steps to make sure your business’ reputation isn’t sinking into unreliability and that you aren’t missing out on potential work.
1. Answer the phone…every time.We know you’re busy, but someone has to be answering the phone. Let’s get pragmatic: not answering a customer’s phone call is costly, in large part because of the wealth of choices available to them online. If a new customer finds your business through an internet search and no one answers the phone, they’ll move on to the next search result.
Having someone answer the phone every time it rings (at least during business hours) will help build your customer base and keep the hard-earned loyalty of customers you already have.
2. Have A Dedicated Business Line.Having one phone for both personal and work calls is convenient...until it isn’t. From a business perspective, dedicating one phone for work has a few immediate benefits.
First, prospective clients can only contact you during business hours, not whenever your phone is turned on. It might not mean you avoid every 2 am work call, but it does mean you’re only answering 2 am calls if you choose to.
Second, keeping home and work voicemails separate makes it easier to sort through and respond to clients. Anything that streamlines and consolidates customer conversations into one place will help you keep track of when you last spoke to them and, if it’s via text, what you talked about.
Additionally, having a separate business line helps protect your personal privacy. Personal cell phone numbers are tied to personal email, social media, and shopping accounts. Leaving that number unpublished makes it more difficult for an angry customer or scammer to track down your personal information.
Finally, a separate business phone number also helps customers. Not only will they appreciate having a dedicated line of communication, they’ll prefer a professional voicemail introduction over a personal one. Speaking of...
3. Keep Voicemail Introductions Up-to-DateThe worst-case scenario is not when a customer calls and doesn’t get an answer, it’s when they call and have no idea what to expect or do next.
A voicemail introduction sets expectations for the customer. First, we confirm that they have called the right number. Next, we give an explanation for why they haven’t reached a person yet. Finally, we direct them into their next steps. As such, your voicemail greeting needs to at least include:
- Your company name. “Hi! Thanks for calling Gizmo’s Toy Repair Shop.”
- Your business hours. “We are open from 2pm to 5pm, Thursday through Sunday."
- What the customer should do next. “Please try again during our normal business hours,” or, “For emergency toy repair, please call…”
4. Set Up Call ForwardingMultiple phone lines are excellent at making sure customers have a direct line to the specific person or department they need to speak to. For most businesses, a customer leaving a voice message on that specific line for someone running late to the office or taking a lunch break is the best option.
However, if your business is in a time-sensitive industry or if an employee is on vacation, setting up call forwarding means a customer won’t leave a voice message...and then be left unanswered for days or weeks.
Setting up call forwarding is fairly straightforward. It’s also easy to undo if you only need to forward calls for a few hours while working in an area with poor reception or for a few days when someone’s on vacation.
For time-sensitive industries, where every phone call needs to be answered right away, make sure to set up call forwarding from every personal line to the general business line. That way, a customer can still try to make a direct call, but after a certain number of rings, they’ll be forwarded to someone free to talk to them.
5. Consider hiring an answering service or virtual secretary on a regular or seasonal basis.If your team is spending too much time handling incoming clients or if they’re too busy working to answer calls promptly, it’s time to consider bringing in a dedicated resource.
Depending on your business’ needs, this might only be a part-time or a seasonal role. It’s common to start by hiring someone to handle incoming calls for only certain parts of the week or times of the year.
Finding a local employee to work in person, signing up for an answering service, or hiring a remote, virtual assistant to take care of calls (as well as send out appointment reminders and answer common questions) are all great options to make sure every call is answered.
6. Most importantly, test the process regularly.No matter what set up your business follows to welcome inbound calls, make sure to test it and see if everything is working properly. Even if you think calls are being answered quickly and courteously, a regular check-in makes sure that if there’s a problem, you find it before your customers do.
Expertise.com recently worked with a law firm who had twice asked to be reviewed and listed on the site, but failed the mystery shopping process both times. When they asked us why they kept failing, our answer was simple: the front desk agents would quickly and politely answer the phone, promise to have an attorney call us to answer questions, and then we would never hear from them again.
As a result, the law firm conducted a self-assessment of their lead handling process. They discovered that everyone thought someone else was handling the lead, and ultimately were losing potential customers because no one returned the call. They updated their processes to make sure calls were handed off to the right people, and on their next mystery shopping test, they passed with flying colors.
Good customer service is the simplest way to make your business stand out from the competition and the easiest way to earn customer loyalty. A well-thought-out plan for how phone calls are handled not only helps current customers stay in contact with you but also helps new customers know how to find you.