Many of us hate voice mail systems.

When we call a company and it is impossible to reach a human, we feel we are of a minimal importance to that organization.

Worse is to start the process and then push a wrong button, leaving us disconnected and having to start the button pushing process all over again.

But often, in retrospect, there is one thing even worse than not being able to reach a human: the response we get when we do reach one.

Projecting Competence

And since our impression of most companies is made in the first five seconds of our call, a company must make sure the people answering the phones know what they are doing.

The key, says Barbara Sacker, president of Pro-Action Inc., is getting across to the people who answer the phones that they are professionals and not just cogs in the wheel. Her Brooklyn, N.Y-based company offers a program called "Ear to Ear," which teaches telephone techniques for such clients as Chase Lincoln First Bank, and the Depository Trust Co.

A professional is someone who never stops practicing, Ms. Sacker explains.

So in its classes, the company tries to create the feeling that people attending were not picked because they are the worst and need training, but rather because they are professionals who can be made even more effective.

To achieve this, the managers who choose the people for a training program have to make the employees feel this is a privilege, not something being forced on them.

Similarly, if the bank provides coffee and danish pastry for its manager programs, this program should get the same treatment.

(In this regard, I remember teaching for IBM a couple decades ago when you could tell the importance of the class by how dirty your hands got as a teacher: If it was a basic class, you used blue chalk and got filthy. If it was for managers you got blue chalk in a holder to protect your hands, and if it was a customer group, you got special chalk and wash-and-dry pads.)

What should you teach people who answer the phone?

* They should know the culture, goals, and technical language of their company so they sound credible even when a caller talks a special lingo.

* They must also know something about the various departments of the company so they can direct a caller to the right person or department. No one likes a runaround.

* They have to understand that the are doing what is best for the bank, not just interrupting their other work by handling the call.

Hiding Behind Anonymity

One of the problems that many companies have in getting decent service from those who answer the phone -- be they phone operators, secretaries, or computer operators who dig up the necessary data to solve the caller's problem -- is that many are afraid to give their names, in case they screw up.

There is comfort in being able to hang up and not have the unsatisfied customer know who did the dirty deed. Ms. Sacker explains in her 12-hour course that it's very important for good service that a caller knows to whom he or she is speaking.

In any case, she points out, a bank will find out who was on the other end of the line from an unhappy customer.

One of the key lessons of "Ear to Ear" is that usually more than one person can handle a problem. Often a caller requests a particular person simply because that is the only person whose name the caller knows.

But whoever is answering the call can, if needed, make alternative suggestions or, in far more instances than we realize, actually handle the problem.

All too often, we are left messages to call back Mr. Schmidlap, when all that was needed was for our secretary to know what Mr. Schmidlap wanted. Frequently the issue can be cleared up without ever having to switch a call.

Getting that Message Straight

Finally, there is the issue of taking messages and avoiding having them garbled.

Ms. Sacker's advice is to make sure the person taking the call confirms what the message is supposed to say by reading it back to the caller.

In sum, a person given the important job of answering your bank's or company's phones has to show instantly that he or she has the brains and authority to do what is needed.

Mr. Nadler is a contributing editor of the American Banker and professor of finance at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.

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