Q&A: Answering inbound calls

How you handle incoming telephone calls can have a large impact on the success of your marketing, and also the satisfaction of your clients. This issue is particularly important for solo practitioners and smaller firms that do not have dedicated staff members that answer the phones.

Handling incoming calls is the topic of this week’s reader question. Specifically, Silver member Stephan Brewer, CPA, asks:

“Recently we have noticed that we are receiving calls after hours that are not leaving a voicemail. In your practice do you have an after-hours call center that engages these people?”

I actually have three distinct answers for this question, and the answer that is appropriate for you depends upon your staffing situation and objectives.

First, I’ll say that Stephan is very correct: Many people do not leave voicemails. I personally never answer my phone live (more on that later), and less than half of all people that call me ever leave a message.

For firms that have enough people to rotate through for “phone duty”, it can be a good idea to forward your main phone line to a particular tax practitioner’s mobile phone after hours and on weekends. The benefit of doing this is that your phone will be answered live by a person qualified to conduct a consultation right over the phone.

This is particularly useful for smaller tax resolution practices that are actively engaging in new lead generation marketing. Taking these calls live is far superior to sending them to voicemail, especially when each of these incoming phone calls may have cost you several hundred dollars each to generate, and represents thousands of dollars in potential revenue.

If you either do not have the staff to rotate this particular duty through, or simply don’t want to handle such calls outside of working hours, the next best option is to use an answering service. A live answering service is vastly superior to just voicemail, and provides an opportunity to at least capture the caller’s complete contact information. Many answering services will schedule a callback appointment, and have the capability of accessing a shared calendar system to create you an appointment when you are available.

Answering services are great because they are far more cost effective than a full time receptionist. Some services will charge you by the minute, or even by the second, and others charge a flat monthly fee. A flat rate of $30 to $50 per month will often get you a basic answering service, which will take down names, telephone numbers, and answers to a few short questions you may want them to ask. This information is then typically emailed to you immediately, which is great if you have a smart phone and are checking email on the go.

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If you require additional service, such as direct appointment scheduling or order taking and “light” customer service issue handling, expect to pay a couple hundred dollars per month for a service if you have a reasonable call volume.

Another option for handling incoming phone calls that are being generated by your marketing is to use a 24-hour recorded information line. This allows callers to hear a 3 to 10 minute recording extolling all the benefits of working with you, and offers them a free report, free consultation, or other marketing response widget in order to get them to leave their contact information in a voicemail. This method is really only applicable for callers responding to lead generation marketing, but has been used very successfully for a few decades in many different industries.

The final option is one that is most definitely not for everybody, and is the least desirable method if you are spending a lot of money on lead generation and need to capture every single person that calls. This method is best for the tiny practice, often solo practitioners, that operate a “boutique” practice. This method is most often employed by individuals that utilize extreme time management measures, in order to avoid being interrupted during scheduled, productive periods.

Basically, this method is to simply never answer your phone live, and to set specific times of the day when you return phone calls. The key to making this method work is to make sure that your outgoing voicemail message states what you are doing, and gives the time(s) of day during which you return calls. The entire idea behind this strategy is to set expectations, and to completely dictate the terms on which people do business with you.

Some astute readers that are familiar with Tim Ferriss’ book, The Four Hour Workweek, will recognize this strategy as one that he recommends for cutting down on communication time with others. Their are distinct pros and cons to this approach. The biggest con is that this method is quite off-putting to most people, and they simply won’t leave messages and will choose other service providers. The biggest pro to this method is that you are never interrupted by other people’s emergencies, and your personal productivity actually skyrockets.

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Again, I do NOT recommend this method for most practitioners. It’s simply to unfriendly of an approach, and you’re going to lose a lot of business. However, if you are at a point in your practice where you can be extremely picky about who you take on as a client, take on a limited number of clients like I do, and/or are involved in other projects (such as another job, another business, work part-time, or are living it up on a beach in Tahiti), then this method might work for you.

Choosing how you are going to answer your phone has a major impact on the return on your lead generation dollars. Although I currently have a “no answer” policy, this obviously isn’t going to work for me now that I am launching a local tax office. As a result, I will soon be hiring a telephone answering service to take my incoming calls and actually schedule my appointments.