What impression do your customers get when they call your business?

The person who answers the telephone makes the first impression of your company on a caller.

Make sure that this person sounds pleasant on the telephone. When interviewing for the position, do most of the interview on the telephone to ensure that the person will make a good impression to your customers and prospective customers.

The best thing that you can do is to call your company and hear how the telephone is answered. I've called thousands of contractors during the past 18 years and too many times, I can't understand the company's name when the person answers the telephone.

If the person answering the telephone sounds or is sick, has laryngitis, or is otherwise having a bad day, have someone else substitute.

I've heard my clients answer the telephone and I would know instantly that something was wrong. I'd often say, "Put a smile in your voice" to the client. Then they'd laugh and sound better.

If I was picking up on something being wrong, then surely customers would, too.

Have a policy that the telephone must be answered within a certain number of rings. My preference is no more than three. If the primary phone-answering person is on another line, the next person in line picks up after two rings and a third person picks up after three rings. This ensures that the telephone is answered promptly.

Stuck

One of my pet peeves is getting stuck in voice mail. If I don't know the direct telephone number of the person I want to speak to, I would much rather talk to a person than hear "Press 1 for..."

And, if the person who called me has a telephone voice-mail system and doesn't give me his or her extension, I still get stuck in a company directory, or worse yet, I get to leave a message in the company directory. Not very professional - and very frustrating to customers.

Make sure that if you use a voice-mail system, when someone leaves a message they include their extension in the call-back number.

During business hours, it is a major asset to have a live person answering the telephone. In this era of everyone using an automated system, it will make a positive impression on most people.

The other thing that the person answering the telephone should be aware of is what I call "terminal" hold. The caller waits - and waits - for someone to pick up the phone. Most phone systems can resolve this problem. After a person has been on hold for 30 seconds, the call goes back to the receptionist. This gives him or her the opportunity to ask the caller whether they would like to remain on hold, take a message or go to voice mail.

What do you do when the telephone is ringing constantly on extremely busy days? Get extra help.

And remember, if you've sent out postcards, letters, or had advertisements on the radio or television, everyone who answers the telephone must be aware of them.

(Copyright 2005, Ruth King. All rights reserved. Write to Ruth King, 1650 Oakbrook Drive, Suite 405, Norcross, GA 30093. Call (800) 511-6844; e-mail ruthking@hvac channel.tv.)