Businesses losing out on 30,000 pounds a year because of tardy response times

The research suggests these shortcomings - missed calls and cancelled contracts - cost the average business around £30,000 in lost business a year. And, alarmingly, suppliers with long-term relationships aren't necessarily safe from the quick-fire way business is now being done: seven in 10 of the businesses polled said personal relationships and giving the benefit of the doubt are less of an option in 2010.

What this means is you need to more on top of your incoming correspondence and customer enquiries than ever before. "Sorry, I was out the office" just doesn't cut it. Here are our top tips for making sure you don't frustrate your clients by missing their calls to the extent they go elsewhere:

  • Get a smartphone. Whether it's an iPhone, an Android, a BlackBerry or any number of the other options out there, you need to be able to pick up emails and redirected calls and voicemails when you're out and about. Check incoming enquiries obsessively whenever you get a spare minute. If you don't have time to reply in full, drop a quick email saying: "I'm in a meeting but will get back to you within the hour."
  • If you have staff, empower them to handle enquiries there and then (so they can take and process orders and are trained to deal with complaints), and have guidelines in place for missed calls so you find out about them immediately.
  • A phonecall is usually quicker than an email. Emails tend to go back and forth every time someone has a new question. Calling your customer back rather than emailing them is friendlier and more productive.
  • Set up an auto-reply on your email (use your Out of Office manager) to ping an email back immediately to all enquiries explaining how long it will take to get back to the customer. For example: "I will reply to your email within two hours. If your enquiry is urgent, please call me on my mobile: 0700 000 000". Then make sure you get back to the customer in that timeframe!
  • Consider getting part-time admin staff if you're feeling swamped by enquiries. You need to be focusing on business strategy and negotiations, not answering emails every three minutes.
  • Having said all this, learn to balance inbox management with your other tasks. Talk to your customers to see what they expect: ask them if they generally need a response within the hour or the weel, then respond to enquiries accordingly. Give out your mobile number and tell them they can use it for urgent queries. Listen to Tim Ferriss' excellent advice on managing your workload and priorities. Learn which of your customers are the most demanding and intolerant, and prioritise them. But still treat others with respect by being as prompt as you can.
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