Barbara was thrilled. She finally got a new automated phone system for her HVAC business. She purchased the system to give her employees more time for their work.

It seemed to her that too much of their time was taken up transferring calls to the “right” person and repeatedly giving out information about their hours, location or services. The automated system would allow them to become truly productive.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Wrong. It was a nightmare. Her customers, who were used to speaking to a human, now had to maneuver a difficult, confusing and sometimes truly impossible system. Some of her customers dealt with the new system, but silently hated it. Some of them complained. Others just gave up and went elsewhere. The real problem was that Barbara lost track of what really mattered. She forgot that her customers were not in the way of her business - they were her business. In her effort to make it easier for her employees, she inadvertently made it more difficult for her customers to do business with her.

In a marketplace with so many choices, it is essential for you to do everything possible to make it easy for your customers to do business with you. Any difficulty or obstacle that hinders or frustrates them may make them run away from you without you ever having a chance to make things right.

So what can you do to encourage your customers to remain your customers and not drive them to your competitor?

Make it easy to contact your company

Have your phone number clearly displayed on everything: all printed and electronic media, receipts, your e-mail signature line, magnets, notepads and anything else your customers may keep. List your phone information in online directories and Yellow Pages as well.

Another thing that makes contacting your company easy is a toll-free number. If you use your number to spell out a word in your advertisements, include the numeric equivalent as well.

Make it easy to talk to a person

Don’t make your customers search for a method to talk to a living person. If you have an automated phone system, it can be extremely frustrating and impossible to get in touch with a human being. Consider reducing the number of prompts in your system. One set of prompts is the limit for most people’s patience and goodwill. If you absolutely must have more than one set of prompts, make sure to offer your customers the option of speaking to an operator in the first and subsequent series of prompts.

Make it easy for customers to reach whom they need

Have employees take responsibility for every call. If they can answer a question without transferring, have them go ahead and answer. If the caller needs to talk to someone else in the company, have the person who has answered the call tell the customer that they are going to be transferred, making sure they have given the caller the correct number in the event the caller gets disconnected or “lost” in the system. If possible, try to get a system that allows your employees to stay on the phone with customers until the transfer is made.

As in any other business situation, have the employee introduce the caller to the person they are being transferred to. The employee should provide a brief recap of the customer’s needs and or questions before politely saying goodbye.

Make it easy to be on hold

Thirty seconds doesn’t sound so bad, does it? “Phone time” is different than regular time. When you are waiting for someone to help you, 30 seconds can seem like an eternity. If your workers have to place a caller on hold, make sure that they check back every 30 seconds to update the customer or give them the option of being called back. Don’t ask customers to call back; offer to call them back. Calling back your customers is a way of acknowledging that you know their time is important and you appreciate their patience.

If you use music for the on-hold time, make sure that it is consistent with the image of your business. Be careful about using a radio station. It could have an ad for a competitor or a disc jockey your customers won’t appreciate. A better idea is to play tapes that tell callers about your business or give them some ideas to improve their life or business.

Make it easy to have a voice-mail returned

If a customer leaves a message, they expect to get a call back quickly. Have your employees change their voice-mail message each day. If they need to be out of the office, or if they are unable to return messages that day, their messages should not only indicate that, but should also have the number or extension of a person who could be contacted immediately.

Sometimes we are unaware of just how difficult and frustrating it can be to talk to a human at our own business. If you think you have an “easy” system, try it out yourself. Have friends and family members try it. Ask your employees to do the same. Have them tell you what the easiest part of their experience was, as well as which parts were frustrating. Then fix the problems immediately. Make it as easy as possible for your customers to do business with you.