How to Automate Your Phone System

Your phone system is your front-door entry to your business. It provides a first impression of your business to your callers. Make it a good one.

First impressions make a difference with how well your caller will think of you and your abilities. In many cases it will be the deciding factor if the caller becomes a lifelong loyal customer of yours or not.

If you are considering automating your phone system with a menu of options for your callers to select, it is important to keep in mind the logical orientation of the departments and personnel in your company. This will help organize the menu structure that your callers experience.


Benefits Of An Automated Phone System

Many businesses find it to be a great benefit to their work-day when they have an automated phone system. Companies that have several people working together have a common problem where everyone is answering the phone for someone else. This interferes with their concentration and gives them the extra responsibility if having to take messages for people who are not around.

With a phone system automated attendant, nobody has to bother answering other people's phone calls. All calls are handled by the system in a friendly and accurate manner. Live calls can be automatically routed to specific phones in the office. With some systems personnel can even forward their extensions to outside locations or to their cell phones.

The unit will also take messages for personnel who are busy or not available. Each individual can record his or her own personal greeting that plays to the caller if they don't answer when the caller selects their extension or presses a menu option that rings to their phone.


What type of phone system should I use?

You can purchase your own phone system or subscribe to a hosted PBX service. PBX stands for Private Branch eXchange, which means your own phone system network. There are two methods that hosted PBX services use to connect you with your callers, and here are the considerations to help you decide.

If you purchase your own equipment, you need to have the appropriate number of phone lines to support the call volume you expect to have. For example, if you have 10 extensions and half of your personnel are on outside phone calls all at once, then you will need five phone lines coming in from your phone company. Furthermore, if all five lines are in use, then the next caller will get a busy signal.

Hosted PBX services, on the other hand, can handle a large volume of callers. So you never have to worry about busy signals. And you can combine multiple office locations under one PBX with one main phone number.


Installing Your Phone System

When using hosted services, no equipment needs to be purchased or installed. You can get right to work on designing and programming your phone system's automated attendant.

If you have a large company, the cost of acquiring your own equipment can run high, not to mention the cost of installation and maintenance. This is when a hosted service may be a better choice. But you need to compare the cost of equipment to the cost of usage. If you have a lot of usage (talk time) then you may save in the long run when you buy your own phone system.

When you purchase an in-house system, make sure you have a qualified installer who understands the equipment and your needs.

Proper phone line connections need to be specified so that all callers can get through. A multi-line system can only handle multiple callers if the phone company can deliver all the calls to your system. In order to achieve this, you need more than one phone line.

You still use only one phone number. Additional callers will ring in on the additional lines. A phone company feature called "rollover" is used so that each call rolls over to the next available line. A full understanding of this can be found in the discussion about How to Avoid Busy Signals with Rollover.

Some systems require proprietary telephones and you will not be able to use existing phones.

If you are buying a new phone system for the first time, it's best to get one that uses standard telephones so you are not limited to buying phones that only work on their equipment. You are then free to select any corded or cordless phones from your local electronics store.


The Best Way to Set Up an Automated Phone System

It is very important to present a clear and structured menu of options for your caller. Otherwise they will become frustrated if they can't accomplish what they called about in a short time with no hassle. You want to point your caller in the right direction. You don't want to give your caller confusing choices.

When you design your phone menu (the list of options your caller hears to select departments, personnel or other information) a quick, orderly and easy-to-follow menu is mandatory. How do you go about planning the proper structure for your menu? The trick is to analyze what most of your callers are calling about. What are their needs and what do they want from you. Then include this in your phone menu options.

Another thing to consider is how well your particular customers know your company. Do they routinely contact specific personnel? Do they know the extensions? Do they know the last name of your personnel? Or do they just have a vague idea of what department they need to reach? Knowing this, you can design your phone menu to match the needs of your customers.

If you have many people calling with a common question, or needing information about your products, make that part of your phone menu...such as "Press 5 for information about our widgets."

If your customers need printed documents, then place these in your phone menu for easy access without waiting for your personnel to take the delivery info and send it out. Instead, for example..."Press 6 to receive an instant fax of our event schedule."

Your phone menu can have options that ring direct to departments or personnel. Or sometimes it may be beneficial to play a personal greeting before connecting, so your personnel can record important information to be played before the caller connects or leaves a message.

Proper use of extensions will also relieve your personnel of unnecessary phone conversations that keeps them from completing their other tasks in time.

If your customers know your personnel by name, then it is helpful to offer a dial-by-name directory. The caller is instructed to dial the last name on the phone's keypad and the call is then connected. But you need to keep this up to date. If you let a person go or add others, you need to keep your phone directory up to date. Nothing could be worse than offering the option, and then letting the caller get a wrong or dead connection because your personnel is no longer working there. So just let me know when changes are required and I'll do it for you.

As a security measure, to be sure you don't lose important callers, it is helpful to always give a caller an option to get to an operator by pressing zero. Your operator may be your receptionist, or someone who can help callers who need guidance.


Phone Menu Standards

It is customary to place departments in the menu and assign extensions for personnel. However, based on your specific needs, you may place people in the menu. The difference is that when you have people in the menu, you are telling your caller to press 1 for Sally or 2 for John, etc. You are giving your caller an idea of the size of your company. This is important if your callers know whom they want and just don't know the extension number. But you can always allow Dial-By-Name, instead, by making that one of the menu choices.

An automated attendant is also useful for allowing your callers to listen to important recorded information without needing to locate or wait for a live person. Common questions can be answered this way with Message-Only Mailboxes or Voice-On-Demand. These are great for providing business hours, directions to your office, listing job offerings, and answers to any other frequently asked questions.

Many people are in a rush and some callers don't have the patience to listen to automated phone systems. You don't want to lose these potential customers and you definitely don't want to frustrate them. The solution is to always provide menu option zero.

Many people try that first if they are in a rush. The best is to let option zero ring to a live attendant, someone you have available to take and handle general calls. At the least, you can always make option zero go to a mailbox with a greeting offering a prompt return call. But then do it. Don't let a new customer, or anyone, wait to be called back.


Automated Attendant Etiquette

It is good business practice to make it as easy as possible for your callers to get through to the person they need to accomplish the task for which they are calling.

One thing to keep in mind is that a caller may be in an anguish state of mind and may not be calm enough to listen to your menu prompts. Many times these callers want to just press zero and expect immediate attention by a real person. So it is advisable to make menu option zero ring through to an attendant who can help them or who can direct the call appropriately.

Another thing that is important is not to mix business and personal greetings. When your employees forward their extensions to their cell phones or home phones they may not want their callers to hear their personal outgoing greeting message if a transferred call is not answered.

Many good PBX systems allow blocking the caller from hearing a personal greeting from the destination voice mail. This can be done by enabling call screening...

Call Screening works like this... Instead of connecting the caller when answered, it first plays their name to the recipient who needs to press a key to accept the call. If a cell phone's voice mail answers, it will not send back a key-press and the caller will not be connected. Instead the caller will be taken back and dropped into the business system's voice mail which has the appropriate business-related greeting.


When Your Personnel Are Unavailable

Your personnel may not always be available to take calls. After all, they are working. But it is just as important to take care of your customers or potential customers when they call.

So when a call goes unanswered, quickly directing the caller to an appropriate voice mailbox, with instructions in a personal greeting, will help assure your caller that he or she will be taken care of in a timely manner.

When your personnel need privacy to accomplish complex tasks, their extensions can be set to "Do-Not-Disturb" mode so that important callers don't just hear ringing or fall into "Voice Mail Jail."

When an extension is set as Do-Not-Disturb, it will play an alternate greeting that the mailbox user had set up to handle the times when they are unavailable. This greeting is known as an "Unavailable Greeting." It gives instructions to your caller to be used while not available, such as to call a different specified extension, or to leave a message.

In the latter case, the time when the caller can expect a return call should be specified in the greeting. The fact that the mailbox user can record both a regular greeting and an unavailable greeting makes it easy to switch to Do-Not-Disturb (or unavailable mode) and back again without the need to record a new greeting.

Obviously it is important that you do indeed follow up with all messages. So it is important that your personnel check their voice mailboxes on a routine basis or that they have a message notification method enabled.


Forwarding Callers to Remote Personnel

If you have personnel who work from home or in the field with cell phones, you should assign extensions to them that can be forwarded to their home or cell phone.

Most phone system have the ability to avoid hearing the personal greeting that your personnel may have on their end. Instead, the system should play a business-related greeting and take a message in its own voice mail feature. But this decision is up to you. It may be more important to let the caller leave a message in the cell phone instead.

For more details on this topic, see How To Make Your Remote Workers Accessible To Callers.


Test and Verify Your Configuration

When you have a new Automated System set up and programming is completed, be sure to call your own number, listen to your own company greeting, and try every option in the menu to be sure everything works as you expect.

You don't want your callers to run into something strange. You can catch it and have it corrected before your important callers find something wrong with the programming logic of your automated attendant.

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STOK.COM helps home-based and small businesses automate their phone systems. to improve company image and customer interactions.

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