Sales and service start with the first point of contact

Our director of marketing approached me recently with a dilemma.


Since I've written extensively on the role of the "gatekeeper" - i.e., the first point of contact, often the person who answers the telephone in an organization - she was seeking my advice.

In fulfilling her duties, she has found it more and more difficult to find the right contact person at the organizations and publications with whom we regularly publish and advertise.

As staff members often change, a significant portion of her job involves continually acquainting herself with new representatives. In making her calls, however, often the person who answers the phone wants to help her find the right person but lacks the knowledge or resources to do so. She confessed that, frequently, she has no choice but to hang up because she is unable to get to the right person.

In my experience, the frontline or front-desk person is a hub through which all pivotal information flows; the true heart of the organization.

However, this position has started to become disconnected from the operation, much to the detriment of any company and its clients since this first point of contact is also the person with whom the majority of the company's clients will have their first experience.

While most organizations know this, fewer and fewer are properly training and investing in their frontline staff.

If these people are truly the heart of the organization, then not training them and providing them the opportunity to develop the skills necessary to serve customers is akin to ignoring a blocked artery. Ignore it for too long and you'll have a crisis on your hands.

The first point of contact must be familiar with the names and positions of everyone in the company, as well as the functions of each department.

It seems simple but, as in the case of our marketing director, clearly not all frontline people have this information. For greatest efficiency, these resources can be assembled in a frequently updated manual. If one is not in place, initiative may need to be taken to seek out the appropriate people and familiarize oneself with the staff.

However, no amount of initiative on the part of the employee can compensate for lack of training.

As a business owner and a salesperson, I consider each call a potential prospect and, thus, an opportunity to make a sale. For my staff to be unable to assist callers and, instead, leave them no choice but to hang up, means that we not only failed to sell our potential prospects, we failed to serve them.

The most essential component of any training program - for the first point of contact or anyone else in the organization - is listening.

It's essential for everyone, regardless of their title, to listen to what the caller is saying as well as the information they are asking for - and, most especially, to understand what they need.

I once knew of an airline representative who contacted the winner of a recent sweepstakes at his place of business to inform him he had won a pair of first class tickets to the destination of his choice. She was dismissed, however, and more than once, by the person who answered the phone. It was obvious the person assumed she was a salesperson and indicated they were "not interested," hanging up before she could even explain why she was calling. Had she not contacted the winner by mail, and had the letter not reached him, the gentleman might never have known he'd won.

While the majority of gatekeepers are savvy to the barrage of calls from telemarketers these days, making assumptions about who a caller is can be dangerous.

As my own assistant can attest, a sale for our company was almost lost when she assumed, by the somewhat slick demeanor of a recent caller, that he was trying to sell us something when, in fact, he was a prospect intending to buy. Thankfully, she chose to keep listening, asked questions to determine his needs, and was able to secure the sale.

Learning proper telephone etiquette is also crucial.

Regardless of how busy the phones are, a harried or irritated, "Hold on!" can produce doubt and anxiety for the caller. Rudeness, as we all know, will do nothing to endear callers to your firm but lack of professionalism in the form of an overly casual or disinterested attitude is just as off-putting.

As a rule, the first point of contact must be polite, courteous and helpful. The best way to ensure this is to provide him or her with the training necessary to acquire the proper skills with which to effectively handle each call.

When properly trained, the person who answers the phone can be an invaluable resource.

A receptionist friend of mine once worked for a construction and restoration service that repaired fire-damaged homes. Often, calls would come in from families whose houses were being repaired and who had, in most cases, lost not only their homes but all of their earthly possessions.

Usually, they were just calling to hear a caring voice, someone who would assure them the reconstruction of their home was on schedule and that someone understood the magnitude of their loss. If she had not shown not only politeness and patience but also respect, compassion and kindness to these clients, untold business could have been lost during such an emotional time. Worse, too, these families' burdens could have been made exponentially greater.

To truly serve our customers, and our potential customers, everyone in the company, at every level, must be properly trained and equipped with the necessary skills to do so.

We can never know if the next caller will be our next big sale, the bearer of exciting news or someone in need of our listening skills and compassion during tragic circumstances. Thus, we must prepare our staff to serve callers and clients in every way possible.

This service starts with the first point of contact.

Through training and reinforcing the core company values of respect, politeness and courtesy, these invaluable frontline people can, in every interaction, personify the commitment to customer service embraced by the whole organization.



Roy Chitwood is an author, trainer and consultant in sales and sales management and is president of Max Sacks International, Seattle.