From the October 2000 issue of Startups

Nobody likes being at the other end of a voice-mail message, especially your clients. But it's also impossible to answer your phone every minute of the day. How can you provide a scintillating outgoing message that will discourage hang-ups and invite callers to leave a message? Nancy Friedman, founder of St. Louis-based customer service training firm The Telephone Doctor, has several remedies to cure your ailing phone etiquette:

  • Have a dedicated business phone line. Not having separate professional and personal phone lines is the number-one phone etiquette mistake made by homebased businesses. According to Friedman, people who have just one phone line won't be taken as seriously by callers than those who have a separate business line. Also, make sure you keep barking dogs, crying children and blaring television sets away from your business environment and, most important, out of the background of your recorded message.
  • Create a professional, positive message. "If your machine is picking up messages, it's obvious you're away from your desk or office," points out Friedman. So don't waste time saying so. Instead, try something like this: "Thanks for calling the Telephone Doctor. Our office hours are 8 to 5. Please leave a message, and we'll get back to you within 24 hours."

Friedman adds, "You should always give a time frame for when you'll be returning calls, but never say ASAP [because that's] a judgment call. Many people may consider 'as soon as possible' to be 24 minutes [rather than 24 hours]."

  • Change your message often. If you spend a lot of time away from your office, leave outgoing messages along the lines of: "Today is Wednesday, September 6, and I'll be in a meeting until 3:30. Please leave a message, and I'll be glad to call you when I return." Being specific and changing your message often assures callers that you're interested in making yourself available, Friedman explains.
  • Slow down. No matter how professional your outgoing message might sound, if you race through it at lightning speed, callers will get frustrated. According to Friedman, if a person has to call back more than once to make sure they've got the right number, chances are you'll lose that client.
  • Offer something of value. While this won't be the case every time you change your message, it's always good business-and inexpensive marketing-to mention in your message any special services or discounts you're offering.

Julia Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer who specializes in business and marketing. She can be reached at juliam129@aol.com.