I have been on a mission in the past few years about telephone etiquette in the business world. It seems things are getting worse instead of better, leaving legions of callers frustrated and angry. To some, this might seem like a minor annoyance, but as I have taken pains to point out, it can become major when it's a chronic situation. It's not good business when retail customers can't get anyone to speak with them, and it sure isn't when someone who wants to do a big deal with you winds up in voice-mail hell.
Now, I am no Luddite. There is no question technology has allowed businesses to keeps costs down and productivity up. Healthcare needs to adopt automation on a far greater scale, especially electronic medical records. Even telephone communication-mobile phones, voice mail, instant messaging, paging-can make our lives more manageable. But such tools can be a business handicap if used excessively. There should always be an option for a caller to talk with someone. And when a person does pick up someone else's call, he or she must be trained to do more than press the "transfer to voice mail" button.
I am appalled that so many healthcare facilities are resorting to voice mail systems as callers' ports of entry. People seeking information about a loved one, trying to find out the results of tests or asking for a provider's opinion should get caring, personal responses, not an electronic menu of dialing options.
Even when you can get through to a human being, I am put off by how casual or gruff many people are when handling phone calls. I guess people have gotten so busy that they think, "It's not my job to answer so-and-so's phone." So instead of saying, "Please give me your name and phone number and I'll make sure she gets back to you as soon possible," the caller is put into a computer, often before he or she has a chance to explain what the call is about.
How often have you found yourself in a closed circle of voice mail with every option another voice mailbox? I usually hang up at that point. Or there's the neat option of punching in the first four letters of the party's name, even though you are calling a general number and don't know which person to call.
Recently I placed a call to a customer in Chicago and a very polite person answered by telling me the name of the company I was calling and asking whom I wanted to talk with. I told her I was surprised her company still answers phones the old-fashioned way. She said, "The chairman feels anyone who calls this company deserves to be treated politely. We don't use voice mail here because most of the calls we get are from customers and we don't want to offend any of them."
About 10 years ago while flying back to Chicago from Phoenix, the plane I was on was struck by lightning as it tried to land at O'Hare. After another attempt at landing, the flight was diverted to St. Louis along with a number of other flights. Things were rather chaotic at the St. Louis airport, and, as the hours passed, it became obvious nobody would be flying to Chicago that night. I needed to get back to Chicago the next day for an important client meeting. At 1 a.m. I started calling two of my favorite airlines. My first call was greeted with an automated voice saying, "All of our flight reservationists are busy at this time, but when one becomes available your call will be handled in the order in which it was received." Thereafter every couple of minutes a recorded voice would tell me someone would be with me "shortly." After a half-hour of this, I hung up in disgust and dialed the other airline, only to be treated the same way.
Finally, I called an airline that was supposed to have cheap fares and was run at that time by a CEO known as a maverick in the airline business. Guess what happened? I was greeted by a real live person. She was pleasant, polite and immediately fulfilled my request for a flight to Chicago first thing in the morning. "Don't worry," she assured me, "everything will be in order and you can simply pick up your ticket at the gate." And she was right. I made my meeting.
It's not surprising to me that this airline is one of the few still operating in the black.
The moment of truth for any company is when a customer calls. How that person is treated can make or break a relationship. "Good morning, how can I help you?" from a live voice is a major advantage for any enterprise, in my book.
So don't take the phone for granted, whether you are a hospital, a business or not-for-profit foundation. Treat everyone who calls with dignity and respect, and it will pay off immediately in good will and better business.