Is It Live Or Is It Memorex?

It all started innocently enough when one of my peers at another state bar asked about answering services for a solo attorney, who desired to have a live person competently answer his phone. Was it an oxymoron? An out-of-date concept? How do you make sure your callers maintain confidence? Or do you even try?

Comments regarding experiences with answering services were highly negative with the exception of one state bar practice manager. One practice manager pointed out a survey he read in which people indicated they preferred a live person answering the phone over voice mail, even if they were then placed into voice mail. He speculated that this was due to the fact that callers were able to get to the correct party / vmail box quicker and didn’t have to spend 5 minutes going through vmail hell to get there.

Summarizing, objections to answering services included these points:

1) One can almost always tell when an answering service is employed. The phone rings an extraordinarily long period of time before answering.

2) The person who eventually answers seems highly bored, and more than a little inconvenienced.

3) It’s often a struggle to get the service to take a detailed message. They basically just want name, phone, and a subject line.

4) The “live” person is not a bit more helpful than a recording. In fact, it can be more frustrating to the caller to reach a live person who often says they cannot do more than take a message.

5) I am frustrated with answering services and would only use one as an absolute last resort. Why? Well, after I’ve spelled PHILLIPS for the 5th time and I get back F-L-I-P-S and they repeat the number I’ve given them but in Spanish or Creole which I cannot understand, AND the attorney doesn’t call me back, I truly wonder IF the attorney even got the message, or if so, whether it was accurate enough to facilitate a return call.

Actual “war stories” about “live” operators, either relief/after hour operators at firms, or regular receptionists:

When I was a Director of Administration we had a very significant client with the last name of Bigbucks. One day when a relief operator was on duty, she asked him to spell his last name. He responded “Well, no one asked how to spell my name when they cashed my last check to the firm of over a hundred thousand dollars, so I’ll bet someone there will know how to spell it correctly!”

As many of you do, I have the occasion to call many lawyers’ offices throughout the state. I, too, am amazed at what I hear. My favorite always is, “Olmenschlaefer, what kind of a name is that?” It’s good that I’m not particularly sensitive about my long last name, but there might be some new, paying clients calling in that might be.”

I am appalled at the number of law offices using staff to answer their phones and the poor to non-existent courtesy and manners of these staff members.

One of my frequent pet peeves is when I am asked the inevitable “who’s calling” and then . . .dead air. No music, no beep, no “please hold” . . . I am left wondering whether I have been disconnected — especially when I am calling on the cell phone — or if my call is being transferred. Whatever happened to the “one moment please” that simple courtesy and training used to provide?

Voicemail is not without its drawbacks, but they are easily remedied.

First, and foremost is a common complaint that callers become trapped in vmail hell. And unfortunately that happens too often.

We have all had that experience. One wrong button pressed on some systems will return a rude “We’re sorry, that is not a valid selection. Terminating the call.” No second chances there.

On other systems there is just no way to get to a general mailbox quickly if you can’t figure out how to navigate to where you want. Or the menu choices go by too quickly and there is no way to repeat them without hanging up and calling back.

Properly designed vmail menuing systems are idiot-proof. Incorrect choices should immediately recycle to the menu choices again. Look-up should be available by first OR last names. A general mailbox should always be one of the choices at most menu levels.

Unrealistic expectations are another problem with vmail. Too often the greeting does not inform callers when vacation, court obligations or other circumstances may delay return of their call longer than usual. Most vmail systems allow for storage of more than one greeting. Most attorneys do not change their message because it takes a number of “tries” to record an acceptable greeting. By doing this in advance and then “activating” instead of “recording” one can provide callers with more realistic expectations.

Other complaints about vmail systems are that callers cannot leave messages because mailboxes are full, there is insufficient time allotted to leave the message, and there is a “generic” recorded message on the mailbox so the caller is unsure whether he or she has gotten to the right vmail box. All of these complaints are simple to remedy.

1) keep your mailbox lean so there is plenty of room for inbound messages

2) if you find messages are being cut off, talk to your administrator about lengthening the maximum time length of each message. If you cannot do that, add to your recording that there is a maximum recording time of xx.

3) always have a customized welcome message on your vmail which states your name and extension number

4) always have an alternate greeting selected when you cannot return calls in the “normal” timeframe.

5) encourage callers to get to a live person in your recording by telling them how to transfer to your assistant or an operator during normal business hours

6) routinely check your vmail system by calling the main number after hours to see how easy it is to navigate as a stranger.

7) routinely check your operator / relief operator by asking family and friends to call the office during business hours and present some difficulties (long difficult names, visibly agitated, needy etc.)

I have a unique problem with many vmail systems. It seems that the dulcet tones of my voice match the command tones recognized by Silicon Sally. Often as I am in the process of leaving a message I trigger all sorts of weird responses from a vmail system. I have even found myself in the “back door” of some systems, able to check a stranger’s vmail messages, change their recording, etc just because of the pitch of my speaking voice. Rest assured it’s just as disturbing to me as to you.

So what’s the bottom line? Truly, it’s having a well-trained competent human on the phone who can take a message or route to vmail as a first choice. If you’re too small for that, or choose not to go that route, it’s about having a well-designed vmail system which is user-friendly and idiot-proof. Training is very important. It’s important for live operators, including relief operators, even if that’s a secretary filling in. Even if your office uses only vmail, you need to provide some training. For example, when I install telephone/vmail systems at firms, I actually write the scripts for attorneys and staff to use for just about every occasion. Having a script handy encourages then to change their recording to a suitable greeting.

As one of my peers so aptly stated, “The bottom line is certainty. Callers want certainty. If a human sounds like a ditz, has language issues, or is poorly mannered, callers will not have confidence that the message will get through. Similarly, for vmail systems or answering machines, if the message is garbled due to a bad tape, or the greeting lacks specificity about obtaining a return call, the caller will not be confident of a timely return call. If the matter is urgent, the caller must have confidence that the call will be promptly returned. If your greeting asks the caller to say their number slowly, that helps develop communication. It improves understanding. Humans abhor uncertainty. Whatever system you use, if you improve the certainty, you will increase caller confidence. That makes them happy. Happy is good.”

Oh, and while we’re on the subject, be courteous when leaving messages on other’s systems as follows:

1) speak slowly and enunciate

2) consider spelling your last name if it is a difficult one

3) do not go into warp speed when leaving your telephone number, especially after a lengthy message

4) record your name and phone number at both the beginning and end of the message whenever you call from a cell phone, as it can be easily garbled as you travel through transmission obstacles

5) if you are in and out of the office provide an indication of when you will be in and available for a return call. This can eliminate a lot of telephone tag.

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