Etiquette Doyenne Miss Manners compares the answering machine with the butler in old-fashioned houses, screening and taking messages for Sir and Madame while permitting access during visiting hours. But modern-day business needs go far beyond the scope of a simple answering machine. New methods, devices, and services can function as 24-hour administrative assistants, research librarians, and gofers ready to handle your customers’ needs pronto – and they don’t demand a check at the end of the week.
There are four cheap and easy methods for automating your responses to specific client needs no matter when they need your information. The effectiveness of each method depends on your business, your clients’ needs, and the kind of information you plan to make available. As a rule, the complexity of your system will grow as the quality of the information you need to deliver improves. Unfortunately, this also means that your clients will need increasingly sophisticated equipment on their end. As technology advances, however, prices will continually drop, giving more people the ability to take advantage of your automated offerings, and ultimately leaving you free to concentrate on running your business.
The Voice Choice
You may dismiss voice mail as an answering machine on steroids, but if your clients need information that you’d normally give out by phone – addresses, office hours, or event schedules – voice mail may be the most effective answer. An easy-to-navigate system can combine announcements that efficiently transmit information to your clients, with multiple voice mailboxes to presort their responses and feedback. You want to be sure that your recorded instructions are clear, accurate, and helpful. Test it regularly and have an impartial third party call in to dummy-proof your system. You may also consider combining your voice-mail system with the human touch of an answering service, in case your clients get confused or prefer to talk with a live operator. Voice mail is the most accessible method for all customers (try naming one client who doesn’t have a phone), but unfortunately it doesn’t lend itself to distributing complex information, such as long price lists or diagrams.
Simple voice-mail services are available from your local phone company, but more flexible and customizable systems are possible when you handle voice mail through your PC. A variety of systems are now being bundled with telephony capability, including a host of add-in software and hardware that can give you nearly unlimited options. The biggest drawback to a PC solution is that, unless the system comes with wake-on-ring capability, you need to leave the machine on at all times. Also, if you plan on handling massive amounts of voice mail, you may want to consider dedicating a computer to the task, unless you’re fond of constant interruption.
If you need to provide written information – product specs, price lists, pictures, brochures, or catalogs – a faxback (fax-processing) system may be most effective for you. Users call in and select from a voice-mail-style menu of options to get the information they need. Once they’ve made a selection, your faxback system sends the document. Voice-mail and faxback utilities are often found in the same software packages, and increasingly, telephony PCs are set up for basic faxback duties right out of the box. Although setting up faxback can be complex, manufacturers are trying to make it easier for nontechies by adding friendly graphical interfaces to the software. As with voice mail, depending on the traffic you anticipate on your system, you may want to dedicate a computer to the task. And of course, to use faxback, your customers must have access to a fax machine.
If you plan on doing heavy-traffic faxback, or if you’ll be using it as a cornerstone of your business, you may want to look into turnkey and standalone systems. These are dedicated machines that can handle multiple lines and hold thousands of faxable documents. Sophistication and prices vary widely – from Ibex’s $1,395 Robofax-PRO (408-736-1485), Brooktrout’s $2,995 QuadraFax (617-449-4100), and Fax On Demand’s $5,995 Faxbase II (800-329-1777) to Computer Peripherals’s $129 ViVa 14.4 Data/Fax/Voice (800-854-7600). If you expect fairly low volume, you’ll be able to get by with a simple, single-line solution, but as your needs increase, you’ll want the improved performance of a dedicated system. As with voice mail, test your system regularly to ensure that it’s behaving as promised.
Return to Sender
If your customers use e-mail, an automated mailing system can respond easily and instantly to their messages. A “mailbot” intercepts messages to a particular address – email@example.com, for instance – and sends back a message acknowledging receipt and giving information, while stowing the message in your in-box for further action. More sophisticated systems offer different messages depending on the customer-specified subject line or on words in the body of the message, providing some of the functionality of faxback. A message sent to firstname.lastname@example.org, for instance, might return an e-mail saying, “For a price list, e-mail email@example.com; for directions to our offices, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, and so on.”
Automated e-mail is an excellent option if you have clients who go online regularly. You’ll need to get access to the Internet because online services such as America Online and CompuServe don’t yet offer this service. A simple mailbot response – one that sends out the same message no matter what – may be available to you as part of the basic service from your Internet service provider (ISP). For more complex systems, work with your ISP to design a service and maintenance plan that meets your needs.
The Virtual Parlor
For providing customers with the maximum amount of information (and giving your company increased visibility to boot), consider putting up a page or two on the World Wide Web. A Web page can provide a significant amount of information, including product lists, pricing, and contact information. You can also design your page to allow readers to send you e-mail directly. The beauty of a Web page is that it acts as both contact point and billboard. If you include your page in such directories as Yahoo or Infoseek, potential customers looking for your type of businesses can find you quickly and easily. And if “seeing is believing” in your business, you can use your Web pages to present photos (and even sound and film clips) of your offerings.
Using a Web page to keep in touch means that your customers must have access to the Web (a reasonable expectation now that online services have expanded to the Internet). You’ll need to either hire a Web-savvy consultant to design your Web pages or learn to make them yourself. It’s not difficult, but it is time-consuming. There are several software packages on the market, including Quarterdeck’s Web-Author, Microsoft’s Internet Assistant for Word, and Novell’s WordPerfect Internet Publisher that work in conjunction with your word processor to make Web-page creation as easy as printed-page design. You’ll also need to find an Internet provider willing to store your pages, which will generally cost you a onetime start-up fee plus a smaller monthly charge.
One thing to watch out for is that Web users have come to expect flash and sophistication, so a poorly designed home page can leave your customers unimpressed. Also, don’t set up a page just for the sake of having one. It may make you feel like a card-carrying member of the “digital revolution,” but if your customers don’t have a clear idea of what they’re getting, your site is either unnecessary or poorly implemented.
Your clients have big ideas about when they should be able to reach you. You probably have big ideas about when they shouldn’t be able to reach you. Automated responses make information about your business accessible to them 24 hours a day – without keeping you at the beck and call of beepers and bells.