Given the importance of online channels in today’s economy, small businesses may treat phone system programming as an afterthought rather than a matter of strategy. But to gain a competitive edge, you must ensure the best experience possible across all the channels your business uses to reach customers.
We surveyed consumers about their phone interactions with small businesses to identify which factors create negative or positive feelings about a brand.
This report uses this data, along with insights from experts on business phone systems, to offer tips on optimizing the design of your small business phone system for customers.
- Caller ID issues are the top problem with receiving inbound calls from small businesses: 28 percent of our sample cites problems with unrecognizable phone numbers.
- Routing calls to the wrong employees and consistent busy signals are the two top issues with making calls to small businesses, cited by 16 percent of our sample each.
- Millennials whose brand perceptions are negatively influenced by phone interactions say the top issue is employees taking too long to find customer information (32 percent).
- Twenty-eight percent of respondents whose brand perceptions are negatively influenced by phone interactions cite the inability to reach employees by name as the top issue.
- Twenty-two percent of respondents whose brand perceptions are positively influenced by phone interactions say the auto attendant greeting is the most influential factor.
Your small business phone system isn’t only a crucial link to your customers—it’s also an opportunity to build positive impressions of your brand. However, this works both ways. Poor use of your phone system can weaken your customers’ trust in your company’s ability to deliver quality products and services.
Cameron Weeks, CEO of Fathom Voice (a provider of cloud phone system and call center solutions), describes the importance of using your phone system as a branding opportunity.
“You wouldn’t find the cheapest, ugliest business card, the cheapest, ugliest website or the cheapest, ugliest storefront to offer your client. The phone system is another way you interact with your clients, and needs to be treated with the same level of respect; it’s a part of your brand.”
Cameron Weeks, Fathom Voice
Now, let’s look at some specific ways in which phone system usage and design factors can either build or harm your small business’s brand.
Improve Outbound Interactions With Caller ID Management and Voicemail Transcription
Overall, the respondents in our sample have more issues with receiving calls from small businesses than with making calls to them. The chart below shows these consumers’ top pain points with outbound calls:
Consumer Pain Points With Outbound Phone Interactions
Nearly one-third of the respondents in our sample have issues recognizing the phone numbers and caller ID names of small businesses. Thankfully, VoIP has made it much easier to manage how outbound calls show up in caller ID.
Jonathon Moody, chief operating officer at Versature (a provider of cloud-based phone systems), explains that VoIP providers can help businesses “brand” caller ID information for outbound calls.
“When we deliver calls outbound, we push clients to mark those with company information, which we can set up on a per-extension basis,” he says.
“Even if I want to have a direct number, I don’t call out as ‘Jonathon Moody,’ but as ‘Versature.’ Numbers don’t matter nearly as much as caller ID names when you’re trying to reach existing customers. If they don’t recognize the name on the caller ID, the odds are that they won’t pick up.”
Another issue our respondents note is failure to respond to voice messages. This is a substantial problem, as it has the potential to erode customers’ trust in your small business’s reliability. But luckily, there’s an easy fix. Business phone systems now offer functionality such as voicemail-to-email—which sends voice messages as email attachments—and voicemail transcription.
As Moody explains, voicemail transcription doesn’t just make voice messages easier to access. It can also help improve business workflows, when used in tandem with a CRM system with contact management capabilities or a trouble-ticket system. This is because transcribed voicemails can be entered into the CRM or ticketing system to help sales or support staff manage customer interactions.
In particular, Moody explains that using voicemail transcription in this way allows employees to “manage voicemails like emails—which is the norm if you’re working with customer service software, such as Zendesk or Desk.com, as the process flows in these products are all designed around dealing with emails.”
Even if you don’t have a CRM system in place, voicemail transcription can still be a major time-saver, since reading a transcription often takes much less time than listening to a voice message. Voicemail-to-email can also help keep employees accountable: They’ll have to confess to ignoring their inboxes along with their voicemail if they fail to return calls.
Effective Call Routing Necessary to Address Customers’ Issues
The primary issues with calling in to local businesses, as identified by our respondents, primarily have to do with their ability to reach specific employees:
Consumer Pain Points With Inbound Phone Interactions
The top pain points with inbound interactions are all somewhat related: consumers experience difficulty finding an employee in the right role to address an issue, reaching a specific employee and getting frequent busy signals. To solve these problems, you’ll need to begin thinking critically about your overall approach to call routing.
“Not every business requires a complex call center solution,” says Aaron Charlesworth, vice president of marketing and product at Vonage Business. “In many cases, small businesses can serve their needs through features like a simple call group or a call queue attached to a well-constructed auto attendant that filters information to the right places.”
Call queues, in particular, can solve some of your routing headaches—especially when you employ an approach to routing known as a waterfall call flow.
“In a small company, a waterfall flow works best: You start with the ideal person to answer the call, such as a service technician, and then you ring through to the sales technician, as he’s the next best guy … and eventually the president’s phone is ringing in addition. The odds are that someone there, hopefully starting with the most useful employee and ending with the least useful, gets to answer that call,” Moody explains.
The following infographic shows an example of a waterfall call flow:
Waterfall Call Routing in a Small Business
The basic idea is that even though someone in accounts payable and receivable may not want to field a support call, the call will at least get answered, and the caller’s information can be recorded to resolve the issue down the road.
You can implement this routing flow by setting up options for support, sales and other departments in your auto attendant (the voice menu that directs inbound callers). Alternatively, your receptionist can be the first stop in the waterfall flow.
Proper configuration also means scheduling your auto attendant to ensure the best possible experience for callers, regardless of when they’re attempting to reach you. As Charlesworth notes, businesses should think beyond simple time-of-day based messaging to time-of-day based call routing.
“Auto attendant scheduling as well as routing of calls to non-traditional end-points, such as a softphone on an employee’s home laptop at different times of the day, are ways for businesses to project a support presence that they never could have projected before.”
Aaron Charlesworth, Vonage Business
In other words, even when you or your employees are working from home, your auto attendant can still deliver your calls in order to create a consistent experience for customers.
If you want to ensure calls are getting to the most motivated employee, you can employ a basic PBX feature known as a “hunt group,” which sends a call to a group of employees rather than a single person.
“Hunt groups are extremely useful for getting calls to the most motivated individual in a sales group,” Charlesworth says. “Businesses want to get prospects to the employee who is best equipped to sell, and the little bit of competition around being the first to answer when the phones are ringing can be used quite effectively by small businesses.”
Consumers Need to Reach Small-Business Employees by Name
Let’s turn now to some of the issues that specifically affect customers’ impressions of a brand:
Phone System Issues That Create Negative Brand Impressions
By Age: Phone System Issues That Create Negative Brand Impressions
The most striking trend we can observe in the above charts is consumer frustration with not being able to reach the employees they want by name. This issue can be solved by adding a standard feature known as a dial-by-name directory to your auto attendant menu.
A dial-by-name directory allows a caller to reach the employee they need by entering the first few letters of the employee’s first or last name on their keypad or even by voice response with some systems. Ultimately, your decision to use a dial-by-name directory should be guided by the industry you’re working in.
“If you’re in a one-to-one, service-oriented industry like real estate, you want to make it very simple and straightforward for an individual to reach the person they’re looking for,” Charlesworth explains. “When it comes to businesses such as restaurants or dry cleaners, then you only need to get whomever’s available to answer the phone—there’s no notion of a one-to-one relationship.”
Finding Customer Information Quickly Is Key to Successful Interactions
The other striking trend the above charts reveal is increasing demand among younger consumers for speedy retrieval of customer information. While respondents over age 34 don’t place as much emphasis on the speed of customer service, millennials have come of age in a world of always-on, real-time communications, and they expect the same from your support team.
You may think your phone system doesn’t have much to do with how you store or use customer information. But effective phone system usage can help your staff retrieve customer information almost immediately.
Very important for this purpose is a technology known as computer telephony integration or CTI, which allows your phone system to integrate in real-time with the other software systems you rely on.
Generally, CTI refers to integrations that populate a user’s screen with information about an inbound caller pulled from the CRM database (thus, the term “screen pops” is another name for CTI). These integrations also allow for click-to-dial functionality within the CRM database.
allowing click-to-dial within contacts database
But what if you can’t afford a CRM system, or don’t yet see a need for software that specifically manages customer interactions? The answer, Fathom Voice’s Weeks observes, is to integrate the phone system with your online accounting system rather than your CRM software.
“Online accounting systems [are now a common] invoicing and financial management solution, but vendors are rapidly noticing that they [also] solve for this other gap of customer management, because very small companies don’t necessarily need both accounting and CRM software,” Weeks says.
“They already have all their customers’ phone numbers and addresses loaded into the accounting system, because they invoice them. If employees start jotting down notes about customers, you’re blurring the line between CRM and accounting.”
Charlesworth adds that small businesses can use accounting integrations in order to “display outstanding debt information based on inbound calls.”
Such integrations might seem like overkill for your small business, but as Weeks observes, “Everyone is expected to be able to do these integrations, and you’re expected to do them better the smaller you are.
“If you call a major telecommunications company to cancel your service, you’re more understanding when they screw up retrieving your information than when you call a smaller company in your town.”
Companies such as Versature and Facebook have been developing another way to find customer information rapidly with your phone system: social caller ID. This technology uses inbound caller ID information to help you learn more about your customers.
“What we’re doing is taking the caller ID name and number that are being delivered to us, and using them to do a lookup in LinkedIn and other data sources to see what comes back,” says Moody.
“If it’s a company number, we’re probably not going to get any information on the person, but rather a logo and an address. If it’s a person, we might be able to serve up a role from LinkedIn and maybe even a Twitter ID.”
Moody notes that this functionality can serve as a substitute for a true CRM system in smaller organizations. It allows employees to get more information about inbound callers in order to personalize interactions, even if they don’t have a CRM database to pull the customer information from.
Phone System Greetings and Messages Are Key to Impressing Millennial Customers
We’ve already taken a look at how poor phone system design and usage creates negative brand perceptions. Now let’s consider the aspects of a phone system that tend to create positive feelings about a brand among your customers:
Phone System Design Factors That Create Positive Brand Impressions
By Age: Phone System Design Factors That Create Positive Brand Impressions
It seems younger consumers appreciate the “personal touches” a business puts into configuring its phone system, especially when it comes to employees’ customized voicemail greetings. Millennials select this as the top factor affecting their brand perceptions at double the rate of older respondents.
Weeks, a millennial himself, has an interesting take on why: “[We] like things to be directed to us; we like personal interactions. We like to feel, whether it’s true or not, that you really do care about what we want, that you want to take care of us—not the 10,000 customers you have.”
The phone system is a critical area where you can direct this kind of messaging at your customers. In particular, auto attendant and voicemail greetings have an important influence on customers’ feelings about your company.
This is one reason you may want to explore professional voice recordings for your auto attendant, a service offered by a number of small-business VoIP providers.
“If the auto attendant recording is crummy, all of a sudden the customer’s trust level that she or he can get an issue taken care of, or even [get] a call back, drops.”
Jonathon Moody, Versature
Vanity numbers are also quite popular among our respondents, though you need to think critically about whether or not you want to utilize a toll-free number for outbound calls.
We’ve interviewed neuroscientists to show that vanity numbers can have positive effects on your customers’ ability to remember your number. However, unless your business handles a relatively high volume of inbound calls, they might not make sense for your needs.
The danger here, Moody explains, is that “people don’t answer calls from toll-free numbers.”
Best Practices Checklist
We’ve seen throughout this report that your phone system can be a crucial tool for building your brand—if properly configured and designed. Here’s a quick run-down of the best practices we’ve covered:
- Configure caller ID settings for outbound calls to reflect your business’s brand.
- Use voicemail transcription and voicemail-to-email to make sure customers’ messages don’t slip through the cracks.
- Use waterfall call routing to help inbound calls get directed to the right employees.
- Schedule your auto attendant and your call routing flows based on the time of day to deliver the most consistent experience possible to your customers.
- Use hunt groups to ensure calls are answered by the most motivated employee on your sales team.
- Set up a dial-by-name directory to make sure callers can reach specific employees.
- Utilize CTI integrations with CRM and/or accounting systems to pull up customer information as quickly as possible.
- Make sure employees set up personalized voicemail greetings.
- Use auto attendant greetings as branding opportunities.
- Use a professional voice recording service for your auto attendant to ensure a consistent tone throughout the system.
- Consider using a vanity number, but only for inbound calls.