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I ask this because I was at a business seminar last week when someone mentioned, in suitably derogatory terms, the curse of the automated phone answering service, as routinely practised these days by big corporates the world over; and it got an unscheduled round of applause and a whole lot of “Hear, hears.”

Of course, automation has helped us to massive efficiencies in many parts of the business process.  Who would want to go back to doing their accounts with a ledger and quill pen? Apart from when the computer’s crashed for the third time this morning.  Obviously.
The Automated Phone Curse
By definition, automation de-personalises, which is fine for all those impersonal activities that need doing – assembling machines, adding up numbers, keeping records. But answering the phone?

Ask any member of the public what they want most when they call a business as a customer (or prospective customer, or supplier) and they will all say the same thing: they want to speak to a human being – someone who can help them, directly, with what they’re calling about.  What they do not want to speak to is a computer.  

Can you imagine the emergency service being automated?  “Hello.  This is the emergency services.  Your call is important to us (not so important that we’ll answer the phone personally of course.  But nevertheless.)  If you’re calling to report a fire, press one; if you’re being raped or burgled, press two.” Well, you get the picture.  And I accept that that is an extreme example of customer service, which we simply wouldn’t accept.

The truth is, though, that big corporates have invested in all this technology for one reason, and one reason only: to save money.  They dress it up in a lot of spurious marketing speak, but if you read their weasel words closely, it nearly always adds up to, “In order to give you a better service, we’re giving you a worse one.”

Now if you’re still with me, you may describe this as just another rant from a grumpy old man – a moniker I would have bridled at not so long ago, but which suddenly I find myself growing into.  But there are big lessons here for the smaller growing businesses I meet and work with every day, trying to compete with bigger fish in that big ocean of business.


As you grow, there is a constant need to re-appraise the way you do things: how can you improve the business’s systems and processes, so that it works more efficiently as it grows bigger?  Ideally, so that at some point (if you want to maximise its value), it works efficiently WITHOUT YOU IN IT.

And no doubt there are siren voices from a host of telecoms suppliers, offering attractive packages to help you ‘professionalise the customer interface’ or some such cod-US sales jargon.  But think twice before you sign up.  What is the one thing that you, as a small business, can beat every big corporate at, into a cocked hat, every day of the week?  Responsive customer service.  Or to put it another way: answering the bloody phone – personally, not with a machine.

By all means automate your customer relationship management (sorry about the jargon): it’s vital to the sales process.  You do have a sales process, don’t you?  Sorry for asking.  It’s just that … oh, never mind.

But don’t go de-personalising the most critical area of that customer relationship: the one where they want to talk to you.  Because when it comes to up-selling, cross-selling and repeat purchase opportunities, machines just miss the cues.  I know I try, hard as it is, to avoid giving business to companies that employ machines to do their answering work; how many more are there like me?

Every time you answer the phone personally, think of it as a major opportunity to stick it to your bigger, but cheapskate competitors.

For more information, or to arrange a no-strings-attached initial meeting, contact:  

David Croydon

Hilltop Consultancy
Business Advice Oxford, Oxfordshire