First Impressions Leave a Lasting Impression

Too many companies don't think about their automatic voice systems and the impressions these systems leave with their customers.

Are customers welcomed? One way to find out is for company executives to call their own systems. How does the exec feel about the interaction? How does the system sound? Is it easy to navigate? What message does it convey?

I know when I call a company I appreciate a friendly voice on the recording. This is so easy to achieve. A professional actor can be the voice of your brand or you can use a passionate employee. This one step, usually with minimal investment, dramatically impacts customers' first impressions of your company.

When a recording says, "All calls are important" and then fails to provide the estimated hold time, the caller's trust is destroyed, and your company's reputation is compromised. Basically, the message is that the customer is not important at all; which does not create a great first impression.

It also goes a long way to povide an option to call back if the hold time is long so the customer will not be inconvenienced. This is a critical alternative that customers value. Customers call for a reason; there is so much information available on the Internet, but if they take the time to make a phone call, it is important to both customer and company. Likely, customers want to speak to a person to resolve their issues or get their questions answered. If tthey can't hold, they still needsthe answer.

Predictability technology is the new trend. Companies like Amazon know if the consumer is calling about an order and can automatically route the call to the right agent. Requiring the customer to listen to and then select from 10 menu options is annoying and antiquated.

Technology should also be in place to populate the agent's screen with the caller's information. The agent can then focus on welcoming the customer, especially if the customer has an unusual name. It is not appreciated when an agent has to ask a customer his or her name multiple times.

The purpose of a phone call is for the customer to ask a question or questions. It is frustrating when the agent must ask many questions before the customer is able to speak. No one can be helped without information, but getting the customer's permission first is key. The agent should say, "I can definitely help you with that, but do you mind if I ask you some questions first?" This puts the customer in control. Ninety-nine percent of callers will say "yes."

New or first-time callers should be especially welcomed. When someone comes to your home for the first time, you instinctively know what to do: You offer to take his coat and get him something to drink. You probably even give a short tour. New customers or first-time callers need tours too. Extra details are appreciated. Our research has found that 95 percent of customers who feel that the representative provided useful information in addition to responding to their direct questions are delighted with the interaction. It makes sense.

Consumers don't like to hear the word "no." Just as bad are words like "won't," "can't," "it's not allowed," or, "I haven't heard of that problem before." It not only makes a poor first impression but also creates a long-lasting negative impression. The company loses credibility when customers hear those statements. Instead, afents should be empowered to make decisions within certain guidelines. When customers demand something, agents should say that they will double-check with their supervisors and get back to them. That statement goes a long way and is so much more effective than "no." Customers appreciate it when an agent tries to help, even if it's not the answer they were hoping for.

Competition is greater than ever before. Third-party sellers and online sites have turned brands into commodities. The call center is the home and heart of any company and communicates with more customers than any other department. The call center is the Last Stand.

In addition to having company executives call the system, it can help to have good friends call your company and give you feedback. How friendly was the voice on the automated response system? Did the recording give the estimated hold time and an option to call back at a more convenient time? (If the estimated time to hold is more than five minutes, there is a staffing issue). Did the agent ask permission before rattling off a bunch of questions? Did the representative welcome him as a guest or more like an intruder?

Creating lasting, positive first impressions begins with making customers feel welcomed and then involves showing them that the company wants, appreciates, and values their business.

Richard Shapiro is founder and president of  The Center For Client Retention (, which provides research, training, and consulting services to generate a higher percentage of repeat customers.