Mastering Voicemail and Returning Calls

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voicemailJoe just nailed a meeting with a prospect and just knows he’s “this close” to closing the deal. He’s already brainstorming on all the deliverables he’ll need to move on as he’s walking down the hall to the parking lot. He’s not sure where he’s going to find the time to do all he needs to get done, he’s just sure he needs to find that time. And then he hears something chirp and realizes it’s his cell phone. He’s received 17 voice mails while sitting in that conference room for 2 hours hammering out details.

Now Joe’s on his way to another meeting set to start in 20 minutes and sure to last a couple more hours – which is going to mean more voice mails to respond to. He knows how much he resents it when people don’t get back to him and surely doesn’t want his current or prospective customers – or any other stakeholder in his small business – to feel that way about his small business. And he’s through trying to have productive business conversations while driving. He doesn’t want his daughter getting distracted gossiping on the phone when she drives – talking business is probably even more distracting.

Along with email, answering voice mail in a timely manner can be a real challenge. Here are a few suggestions that may work for your small business:

Chunk it out. If you’ve got a high volume of voice mails because you’re busy during large chunks of your day you might consider scheduling 2-3 blocks of time daily to answer voice mail – and then let people know when they can expect a call back on your message. That might sound something like this:
“Hi, this is Joe. I apologize for your having to reach my voice mail instead of me, and I make every effort to return calls by the end of the business day. I also check and respond to voice mail regularly at nine, noon, and four. Please leave me a message that includes what you need me to do for you as I want to be ready to help when we talk.”

Now Joe’s callers are not only “promised” a call back, they have an idea of when that will be.

Make “mini” call backs. One of the reasons we hesitate to answer voice mail is we know there’s a really good chance they will take up more time than we have, or we aren’t prepared to discuss whatever it is the person who left the voice mail wants. At the same time, we don’t want people to feel ignored. One way to make sure that you’re call back is short and sweet is to simply say so. That might sound something like this:

“Hi – Ben? This is Joe, I just wanted you to know I got your voice mail. I’m on my way to a meeting, but can you email me those specs and would you be available around 4:00 to discuss them?….Great, I look forward to talking to you around 4:00.”

That’s a 30 second call. If Joe were to handle all 17 voice mails in a similar manner, he’d speak to each and every one of them in about 10 minutes. Add the 10 minutes it took for him to listen to his voice mails and that’s 20 minutes invested making 17 customers happy – a pretty darn good return.

Forward your voice mails to someone who can respond. Small business owners are busy people and it goes without saying that there are going to be days that you simply cannot answer your voice mail. If that’s the case, forward those messages to someone who can at the very least provide the caller with a “real person” call back. That might be your receptionist. It could be your business partner. It could be a line employee that doesn’t normally handle calls. If you’re a one-person show it can even be your spouse or best friend. That might sound something like this:

“Hi – Marie? This is Jen. Joe asked me to give you a call back as his schedule is really tight today and he might not be able to respond until tomorrow morning. He said you were interested in lease terms on the Cottonwood Street property and wants to know if there’s anything else you need from him so he’ll be fully prepared when he speaks with you…OK, I’ll let him know that’s it. He wanted me to apologize for the delay and let you know he looks forward to talking to you about this opportunity.”

Jen is actually Joe’s wife, or receptionist, or business partner, or a good friend, or his mentor. Most of all, Jen is a real person who returned Joe’s call for him. Joe’s customer is happy, and so is Joe.

Google it. You might consider using Google Voice (we have no affiliation with Google or Google Voice) to help let you know which callers leaving voice mail are customers or primary stakeholders (such as investors, business owners you have alliances with) that you want to get back to a.s.a.p. from other callers such as vendors or anyone else you identify as not “critical.”

You can create one phone number that you give to “non-critical callers” that will go straight to voice mail. You will receive a texted transcript (sometimes not “perfect”) of your caller’s message. You can also have those messages sent to your email, and respond to them via email. Pretty cool. You can set up another number and create a personalized message for “critical callers.”

The Golden Rule when it comes to voice mail is design and implement strategies that ensure you respond to those voice mails the way you’d want people to respond to yours.

Last modified: April 27, 2013
Annie Kile


This story is part of our Small Business Corner, a peek into the life and trials of small business owners.

Category: Insider's perspective, MPR Authored, Small Business, Small Business Corner, small business owners, strategies, tips

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