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Consumer's-Eye View Offers Clear Look at Business and Service

On potential customers' first contact with a company, little details and good communication can mean a great deal.

March 15, 2000|LAWRENCE J. MAGID | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

My experience as a consumer last week offers some object lessons in how not to run a business. It was a reminder that to see your business clearly, sometimes it's best to put yourself in your customers' shoes.

I needed to book a hotel room for a business meeting I'll be attending in April in Barbados (one of my tougher assignments). The hotel where the meeting is taking place says it's full, but a colleague suggested I contact some tour operators to see whether one can get me a room if I also let it book my transportation.

I went to the Internet and started surfing sites that sell package tours to Barbados. Sure enough, a number of them offer my preferred hotel as part of the deal, but in almost every case I was disappointed with the service I received online.

Some Web sites provided details about their tours but didn't bother providing any mechanism for me to get my questions answered via e-mail.

Some provided an e-mail address but didn't publish a phone number, which can be a hassle if what a customer wants is an opportunity to talk.

I phoned one company that did publish its toll-free number, but the person who answered was unable to address any of my questions. She told me to go to the Web site, but that's how I got the 800 number in the first place. Finally, she told me to send e-mail but, guess what? She didn't know the e-mail address.

Several companies did provide an e-mail address on their sites, but it's been about four days and none of them has responded to my e-mail. If you're going to give out an e-mail address (which is a very good idea), by all means answer your e-mail on a timely basis. Remember, even if you're not an Internet company, the person who sends you e-mail is an Internet user and probably accustomed to "Internet time," which is often measured in minutes and hours, not days, months and years.

Another company had a form for me to fill out, but it asked me to provide a credit card number before it would quote a price. Forget it. I'm not giving out a credit card number in advance of that information, especially to a firm that I've never heard of.

One company had a price list for all its services, which is a great idea. They also had the foresight to put a date on the list, which is also a very good idea. Unfortunately, the list hadn't been updated since 1997. If you're going to stake a claim in cyberspace, then keep it up to date. Otherwise, what could be a feather in your company's cap turns into a major embarrassment.

Speaking of keeping things up-to-date, another gripe of mine is business people who leave a voice message saying something like, "It's Wednesday, March 8, and I'm out of the office today." That's a great idea but half the time I hear these recordings, the date has passed--sometimes by weeks. If you're going to do that, be certain that you update your message daily.

Then there are the companies whose telephones are answered by "auto attendants." Press 1 if you want to go to Jamaica, 2 if you want the Bahamas, etc. These can drive you so crazy that you need a Caribbean vacation sooner than you might think.

I've become so frustrated with these systems that I'm now in the habit of pushing 0 in the hope that I'll be connected to an operator. If that doesn't work, I'm as likely as not to hang up and call the next company on my list. If you have such a system on your phone, make sure there's an easy way for your customers to reach a real human being. And when a person does answer, make sure they know how to route the call.

As a journalist, I frequently call companies and ask to speak to the public relations department. But even when I explain exactly why I'm calling, I'm sometimes connected to human relations instead.

And inevitably, the person to whom I'm transferred isn't there and nothing on the recording indicates his or her position, so I'm forced to leave a message to someone who may not even be in the department I'm trying to reach. If you have employees with specialized roles, have them leave a message that starts off with something like, "Hi, this is Jane in the sales department," and ends with "If this is urgent press 0 for the operator, who can page me or find someone else to help you."

Finally, there is the issue of getting paid. I realize I'm still in the minority, but I'm part of a growing cadre of consumers and businesses that pay their bills electronically rather than by paper check. If your customers aren't doing that now, they will be soon, so make it as easy as possible for them to do so.

Don't require that they submit a remittance form, and train the folks who process your payments to deal with electronic payments and checks that are created by companies such as CheckFree and Intuit, which process electronic payments for their consumer and business customers. Quicken, which many consumers use to pay bills, requires the user to enter the merchant's phone number (so put it on all your invoices) and that the account number be no more than 22 characters.

*

Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard at 2:10 p.m. weekdays on the KNX (1070) Technology Hour. He can be reached at larry.magid@latimes.com. His Web site is at http://www.larrysworld.com.

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