There's nothing worse than spending a pot of money to attract new customers, only to lose them because they can't reach you when they need you. Make sure someone answers your phone for gosh sakes!

This sounds like an absolute no brainer. Right? Guess again.

A human being answers the phone just over half the time in small services businesses. If a human being doesn't answer, who does? A gorilla?
Close.

Just under one out of 10 calls reaches a number that's no longer in service, but was less than a year earlier. In more than four out of 10
cases, a customer reaches an answering machines a message telling the customer to call pagers or other phone numbers, busy signals or the call is never answered.

These statistics reflect calls placed between 9:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. local time. Think about it. A business phone was answered by a human
being less than half the time!

For a service business, the telephone is lifeblood. Your customers call you when they need you. When they need you, they're under stress. They need you NOW! They have a problem. They want to pay you money to solve it for them. This is what you live for. It's why you're in business.

But noooo. Half of all businesses aren't interested. "Wait for me to get around to it," they're saying to their customers.

Customers Won't Wait
This is the age of instant gratification. Everything is hustle bustle. You may be prompt in pulling messages off the machine or responding to
pages, but the customer doesn't know that. The customer only knows uncertainty. They've already got enough uncertainty.

When the customer can't get through or gets a machine, there is a message. It's click. Goodbye. Talk to Mr. Dialtone. I'm going to call someone who cares.

Pull out the yellow pages. Look at all of the listings under your business classification. Either there are lots of alternatives or you
live in a community where there are few customers and you can't risk losing a customer to any alternative.

"Most People Understand" Is A Myth
Maybe you're not big enough to staff the office and you've got to be out making sales calls or servicing your customers. They understand you can't be everywhere at once. After all, you've got a voice messaging system that pages you as soon as someone calls. You get back to them right away. Most people understand. So what if you lose one or two calls?

Maybe it's more than one or two calls. Unless you've got caller ID (and you should), you really don't know what it's costing you. If you think
it's only one or two calls, it's probably more than that.

Seven Steps To Reduce Lost Calls
Maybe you won't eliminate all of the calls you lose, but you can try. You can take steps to reduce lost calls. Here are seven you might consider:

1. Use an answering service. Sure, most have problems, but the worst answering service beats the best answering machine. At least you've got an opportunity for a live person to intercept the call and (hopefully) reassure the customer that you'll get back to them.

2. Hire someone homebound to take forwarded calls. If you work on it, you can probably find someone disabled or retired who would be willing to be available to take forwarded calls (make sure they've got call waiting). They're probably better than an answering service. You can train them to answer the phones the way you want. Besides, you're giving someone an opportunity to earn some extra money. It's a good deed.

3. Forward your phone to your cell phone. If you can't abide the answering service, take the call on your cell phone. Of course, turn the
thing off when you're face to face with another customer. Don't risk the bird in the hand for the one in the bush.

4. Make sure you've got enough lines. If you need extra lines, add them! Even if it's only once or twice a day that someone gets a busy signal,
that's once or twice a day that you risk losing a customer.

5. Install a back line. Don't let a business line get tied up by calls to/from family and friends. Install a separate back line for personal
calls.

6. Install a separate data line. Roughly one out of three small businesses with a single fax machine, do not have a dedicated fax line.
Why risk losing a customer because you're faxing or checking e-mail? Put in a separate data line. Combine it with the back line if you must, but
understand that you're also risking a failure to receive a fax if someone talks too long or spends too much time on the Internet.

7. Use an automated phone forwarding service. These are a last and least choice, but better than an answering machine. One service, Webley, answers the phone in a prim British voice stating, "Hello, this is Webley, the personal assistant for (insert your name). Please wait while I locate him." Webley then tracks down all of the numbers you've programmed before taking a message. There are other services, but at $14.95 per month, Webley is a good companion forwarding calls in the event you tend to forget to do it as you rush out of the office.

Whatever you do, don't lose that call! Lose enough and you'll become the one in 10 with the phone that's no longer in service.

Matt Michel is president of the Service Roundtable (www.ServiceRoundtable.com), an organization dedicated to helping contractors prosper. Matt is also the publisher of Comanche Marketing, a free marketing e-zine. Subscriptions are available at www.ComancheMarketing.com. You can contact him directly at matt.michel@serviceroundtable.com. Or send your comments to Contracting Business at letters@contractingbusiness.com.