Friday, March 16, 2012

SOP Friday: Phone Procedures 1 - Philosophy and General Rules

Phones are a tough topic. When you're really small (1-2 person shop), you probably forward everything to your cell phone and probably answer it all the time. When you get an voice mail you call someone back immediately.
That's a very natural thing to do. It's very personal and gives clients a strong sense of being served.

BUT . . . This behavior can also lead to too much interruption and habits that do not serve you well in the long run. In general, you should not have any processes that allow people to simply interrupt what you're doing and reset your productivity. Today we'll talk about some general rules for success with the phones. Next time we'll discuss "How Much Interruption is Okay?"

Phones and Phone Etiquette

Here are the proposed guidelines

It has been set out that this company will not be interrupt driven by phones of any type. It is considered rude to turn away from someone while in a conversation only to give all your attention to another. Many people today do this when their phone rings, but we will not.

It is also recognized that anyone working on a task is distracted from that task the second they change their focus to the phone. This can be an almost addictive, compulsive behavior.

Personal phone calls should be attended to during break times and if necessary in between service calls in such a manner that they do not interrupt the flow of work.

It is assumed you prioritize your personal and work life in some organized fashion so that higher priority items and addressed before lower priority items, and that there is a process for putting on your "to do" list.

General Rules
- Technicians do not answer any phones at any time unless it is one of your co-workers or it is identifiable as being directly related to the Service Request or Activity you are working on at the time.
- Always set phones to lowest audible setting (or vibrate) when in any office including our own.
- Do not answer your desk or cell phone when you are in a meeting or giving someone else your attention.
- Try to check voice mail every other hour on the hour for best response time. A simple rule is every odd hour of the day. This allows for a check after lunch and as one of the last things in the day.
- No personal phone calls while on client sites ever!

Voice Mail
- Desk Phones have programmed voice mail greetings and menus.
- Desk phone voice mail passwords are set to the norm defined in the company policy.
- All voice mail greetings must closely resemble the following statement and must contain the same information:

“Hello you have reached the voice mail for Joe Technician. Please leave me a detailed message and I will return your call as soon as possible. If this is of an urgent nature, please call the 916-928-0888 extension 1 for the Service Manager."


Phones are an interesting thing. Somehow, our society has come to believe that you should answer the phone as soon as it rings. I've been in sales meetings when a cell phone rings. Invariable, the prospect will say "Do you want to get that?" No. In fact, the person with the phone should have put it on silent or left it in the car.

When you are talking to someone on the phone, they deserve your full attention. When you're talking to someone in person (even a fellow employee), they deserve your full attention. But more than that: Your company is less productive and more stressful when it's filled with interruptions.

Here's a little snippet from some scientific research:
  • "When people are constantly interrupted, they develop a mode of working faster (and writing less) to compensate for the time they know they will lose by being interrupted. Yet working faster with interruptions has its cost: people in the interrupted conditions experienced a higher workload, more stress, higher frustration, more time pressure, and effort. So interrupted work may be done faster, but at a price."

    The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress by Gloria Mark, Department of Informatics, University of California, Irvine and Daniela Gudith and Ulrich Klocke, Institute of Psychology, Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany.


With phones, our big fear is that we'll give a bad customer service response. But, really, we find that 99% of clients are perfectly happy if they get a reasonable response. In our modern world, voice mail and call-backs are common. If you have ways for clients to enter service tickets by phone, email, and web portal, then it's up to you to respond in a timely fashion. In general, if you get back within an hour, they're happy.

If a client has a true emergency, then you need to simply follow the processes we've outlined already. Interrupting your business does not automatically mean better service for the client.


Implementing this policy is pretty simple. You should write up a brief description of the procedure and put it into your SOP binder. Distribute it to your staff. Maybe hold a meeting to discuss this policy and commit to it.

This kind of policy requires that everyone on the team

1) Be aware of the policy

2) Practice the policy

3) Correct one another's errors

4) Support one another with reminders

Your Comments Welcome.

- - - - -

About this Series

SOP Friday - or Standard Operating System Friday - is a series dedicated to helping small computer consulting firms develop the right processes and procedures to create a successful and profitable consulting business.

Find out more about the series, and view the complete "table of contents" for SOP Friday at

- - - - -

Next week's topic: Phone Procedures 2 - How Much Interruption is Okay?


Check Out the #1 Best-Selling book on Managed Services ever!

Managed Services in A Month
by Karl W. Palachuk

3nd Edition - Newly Revised and Updated with TEN new chapters

Paperback - Ebook - Audio Book

Unlike some books with old copyrights that sell for $60 or more, this book is 100% up to date and is only $29.95.

Now includes information on making cloud services part of your managed service offering!

Learn More!


  1. Karl, very interesting, however most customer expect to speak with a live person and not voicemail. How did you set customers expectations to find it acceptable to leave a voicemail ?

  2. I'm also interested to hear how you set those expectations - we find it extremely hard (especially with new clients). It has taken years and years to get our long time clients to not expect to get through to a technician on every call and still it causes problems.

  3. It took us a long time to realize that clients will simply accept the fact that they sometimes get voicemail. We dropped one client over this. (She got a callback in 7 minutes but wanted a live person when she called. We decided that we could not do that.)

    Remember this:
    There are times when you don't answer your phone. When you're in a meeting. When you are deep into a project. When you are at lunch, at a concert with your wife. Clients leave a message.

    The key is: Do you call them back within a reasonable amount of time? If the answer is YES, then clients will be happy.

    Remember also:
    Your clients deal with lots of people other than you. Voicemail is very common. No one's happy with a massive voicemail tree that goes on forever like a bank or insurance company. But everyone's okay with "Hi. This is Karl. Please leave a message and I'll get back to you as quick as I can."

    I don't know where it is right now, but somewhere I wrote a blog post about having both sides of the conversation.

    Don't assume that your clients expect something unless they have specifically told you that. You have trained them to interrupt you all the time. You can train them to wait 15 minutes, 30 minutes, or an hour. This already happens sometimes, and the world does not grind to a halt.

    I recommend you have an actual handout to give clients that explains your process for handling service requests. See the post on "How Do Service Requests Get Into Your System?"

    Tell clients that you will do everything you can to respond to them in 15-30 minutes, if you think that's necessary. But 60 minutes is much more reasonable. It is very important for them to know that you are already doing something for someone else. You would not stop working for THEM to address another client. And you won't stop working on another client's problem just to answer the phone.

    Most phone calls are NOT urgent. You can't design your company policies around the unusual. You must design them around the common tasks that need to be performed every day. You can make exceptions during a crisis. But don't assume everything's a crisis. It isn't.

    I know there's a lot of fear about this, but 100% of all companies that grow beyond one person have a system for managing the telephones -- other than "answer ASAP."

  4. Interesting post and comments Karl. One of our USPs is an immediate response to technical queries, we answer more than 95% of incoming calls. We guarantee that the client will speak to someone technical when they call in and in the rare occasion that they get voice-mail we guarantee to call them back within 60 minutes.

    A number of your posts and other material I have read make me think this isn't a great solution due to the way engineers are constantly interrupted. However, it's what we've sold to our customers and it's therefore difficult to move away from this model.


  5. Good question, Nick.

    The first thing I would ask is: What size is your business? If you have 1-3 people (maybe 1-5), then it doesn't make sense to run a "help desk." A help desk exists so you have someone just grab calls and address problems. If you have enough employees, that's fine. If not, you're spending a lot of time having interruptions and a lower level of work all day long.

    The second question I'd ask is: What do your CLIENTS think they bought? You think you sold them this. But do a survey and really ask them why they signed and why they keep you. Good service and quick response time are not the same as getting a technical person to answer the phone. We have a human answer the phone most of the time, and it's almost never a technician. Our clients are very happy with our response time.

    In a good managed service business, virtually all of your daily problems are minor. That means you rarely get a call for a server down or a failed system. You may have designed a system for the worst case scenario. But do clients really still need that?

    If you're making money hand over fist, then you need to document the processes and procedures that make that happen. And don't change based on my advice! But if you aren't able to track time spent on each client, you're not logging hours in real time, and every day is a scattered disaster, then consider making changes to be more profitable.

    If you have always provided good service, you will not lose clients just because of a policy change. One of the greatest quotes I ever heard from Arlin Sorensen is "Don't worry about what other people think about you because they probably don't." Your clients might not know you have this policy. But even if they do, you can simply tell them that the business is changing. Computers are more reliable. Managed Services makes everything easier. Having a help desk setup no longer makes sense.


Feedback Welcome

Please note, however, that spam will be deleted, as will abusive posts.

Disagreements welcome!