OK, I admit it…I have a major hang-up with voicemail in offices as the primary mode of daily operations. I think it is diametrically opposed to superb client service for a services company. I don’t know how long voicemail has existed, but its appropriate usage has progressed over time from bad—to terrible—to miserable. Let’s admit it, voicemail is primarily there for the convenience of the one for which the automated voicemail message was generated, at the detriment of the sender of that message. The recorded message is indirectly saying, “My time is more important than yours, and I’ll get back to you when it is convenient for me. If necessary, I don’t care if we play phone tag for a week.” Is this what a good client service company is about, really?

When I say the voicemail conundrum has only gotten worse, I am referring to central computer-generated “receptionists” that force you to go through the electronic menu of: “If you know the extension of the person you are dialing, dial it now. If not, type in the first three letters of their last name” process. I have noticed the numbers on a phone are big, but letters are small—leaving me to struggle to find my glasses while response time runs out and I need to call again. It infuriates me. Everyone has experienced the systems for so-called great utility, insurance and banking companies that require you to wade through a series of push button access prompts. “If you want your balance, press 1, if you want to transfer funds, press 2, if you want to…” and on and on. I experienced one company that had eight different sequences in their automated “general directory.” Finally, as the last option, I asked to speak to an agent (after navigating through over two minutes of prompts!), which resulted with a recorded message. This is my valuable time!

I have been in hallway conversations with people when their phone starts to ring. When I tell them it is OK to interrupt our conversation because we are just chatting, the response is, more than often, “It’s OK, we have voicemail.” I will usually respond with, “But it could be a client who’s paying the bills for this place—and your bonus!”

What is wrong with the picture when service companies don’t want to talk to their customers directly, unless it is convenient for them? Why do the very customers who pay these companies’ bills and create their profit have to make multiple calls to connect to a live person? Personal timely client service seems to have become an overhead item to be minimized to the lowest cost. Has this practice become “acceptable” because companies have taken an “everyone does it” attitude? Is it because utilities and other large service companies have created monopolies and don’t care what you think of their impersonal phone system? Why is their time and efficiency more important than mine?

I expressed my frustration in a meeting, where a younger person responded they had come to expect it (automated “receptionist” systems) so it did not bother them when they had to call four times to get service. I had another person comment they thought their clients liked it because they were only sending one-way messages anyway, and did not want to actually talk to someone. Good grief, have we come to think it is either OK, or good, to not personally answer the phone?

So here is my tip for significant low cost, effective differentiation for your company. It does not take innovation. It takes no new hires. It takes no real capital investment. Just answer the phone and act like every customer’s time is more important than yours. In the two decades I was CEO or maintained other roles in the C-Suite, I had the following rule: I will pick up and answer the phone within the first three rings, whenever possible. If not, my primary assistant will answer the next three rings, a backup transfer assistant will answer any further rings, with voicemail being the very last resort. We used voicemail about 5% of the time and I personally answered my phone about 50% of the time. There were no routing central receptionists.

I cannot count the number of times when I directly answered my phone, and the client on the other end said, “Holy mackerel, you answer your own phone?” I would say, “Of course, because it could be you and there is no one more important.” Their usual response was, “Wow, that is impressive.” One journalist told me, “You are the only CEO I have ever known who answers his phone directly. I love contacting you—you run an incredibly personal business.”

Having a human being answer the phone was obviously a differentiator for these people. And it loudly communicated that we were in business for our customers, not to take shortcuts to attempt to be more efficient with our personal time. If you are forced to having a client’s call go to voicemail, apologize for wasting the client’s time with voicemail when you return the call.

In summary, if you REALLY want to impress your customers and act like you are in business to serve them, answer the phone in person and tell the caller how pleased you are that they have taken the time to call you. In today’s world, you will separate yourself into a memorable league of your own.

© 2015 Robert Uhler and THE UHLER GROUP. All rights reserved.