Telephone sound means all sound in telephone interactions, from ring tones and on-hold sound to recorded announcements, automated call-handling systems and call centre agents.
According to a survey carried out in the UK by telecoms company Toucan, women spend an average of five years on the phone during their working lives, taking part in around 288,000 calls during that time. Men participate in slightly less calls - around 277,000 - and make shorter calls, with the result that they spend only three years of their lives on the phone. The average business call lasts about five minutes, which is half as long as the average personal call.
Three years or five, that's a huge amount of time spent practising this form of communication. We have become used to doing business on the phone, whether it's checking prices and availability or ordering; arranging meetings or requesting information; cold calling prospects or servicing key customers. Where only a letter would have been appropriate just one generation ago, today a phone call (with possible email confirmation) is standard practice.
The massive increase in telebusiness has some major implications for organisations. First, time has been compressed. An order processing system could have had a turnaround of a week in the 1960s and been considered perfectly satisfactory by customers. Today the same system has to perform in real time or it will be a fatal wound for the business, haemorrhaging customers with every frustrated call. Second, the whole process has become more volatile. A ‘Dear Sir or Madam' letter was an impersonal communication to a faceless organisation, and the sender would anticipate a similarly emotionally neutral response. A phone call is much more personal, partly because we associate the medium with informality and with personal communication, and partly because conversation transmits emotion so much more powerfully and immediately than written communication. Writing is very susceptible to (mis)interpretation unless used by an expert - hence the rise of crude devices like emoticons in an attempt to limit the huge potential for emails and text messages to be emotionally misconstrued.
Even for world-class writers, sound adds power and presence. Think of the difference between reading Shakespeare and hearing it. For the rest of us engaged in commercial communication, the options are web-forms, emails or voice communication. There are probably books to be written about the first two, but since neither of them usually involve sound we will ignore them and focus on voice communication by telephone, including, of course, ‘voice over Internet protocol' (VoIP).
When we speak to a ‘customer service representative', the voice on the other end of the phone is the organisation to us. The accent, timbre, pace, vocabulary, clarity, listening skill, knowledge, attention to detail and most of all the care demonstrated by that person all combine to create our first, and all too often our last, impression of the organisation we are calling. The elements of this call are our experience of the organisation and its brand: how fast the call is picked up; how appropriate and effective is the handling of our requirements; the flexibility or lack of it; the style, including music on hold; the respect shown for our needs versus those of the organisation. Every aspect weighs in and shapes our brand experience. Every phone call is an ambassador for the organisation.
Unfortunately the intimacy, immediacy and intensity of the customer experience are too rarely the primary concerns of business, which often sees only one thing in the rise and rise of telephone contact: increased cost. The mathematics are easy to understand. For a software company with a complex product retailing at £50 and a million customers, the words ‘customer support' are about as attractive as ‘product recall'. The prospect of tens of thousands of lengthy calls a year, each requiring skilled technical staff to answer it, is understandably daunting. With the remorseless march towards 24/7 living, this problem becomes even worse as many organisations face the issue of scalability: how do you meet peak demand without paying for massive redundant resources at off-peak times? And in a global village, how do you cater for the needs of customers in different time zones, all of whom expect instant service?
This economic problem has given rise to an attitude towards customer conversations that fighter pilots would call ‘flying inverted'. Any organisation should relish the chance to impress a customer and give superb service. An incoming call requesting product or service information is the best possible opportunity for a sale. Inbound customer calls should be seen as an asset: the more you have, the more your company is worth. But the scalability problem has created the phrase ‘call handling', which makes a customer call into a problem to be solved, not an opportunity to be seized - a liability, not an asset. If any niggling doubts remain, the number crunchers can simply aggregate the calls to transform the personal into the general and then the management task becomes one of processing call volumes as efficiently as possible, which means aiming to minimise call lengths and avoid tying up operators with ‘trivial' enquiries.
Many organisations have been flying inverted for so long they now think they are the right way up! They don't see the irony in the recorded message that "your call is very important to us" - to which many customers respond with the thought: "Right, so important you can't be bothered to answer it personally."
The typical method for reducing the cost of call handling is two-pronged: first, screen the calls with automated call handling systems so that standard queries get pre-recorded standard answers and only tricky requests get through to the operators; second, outsource the answering of calls to a specialist call centre which can flex personnel to meet varying inbound call volumes.
These methods both process calls at a low primary cost, but what of the secondary cost? In 2005 the on-line insurance firm swiftcover.com carried out a survey of 1,000 people and found that four out of five were stressed and frustrated at trying to contact a call centre. Almost two out of three said they could not understand what the operator was saying - and more than half said they were confused by endless automated options. In the UK every household already spends the equivalent of a whole day on the phone to call centres each year.
The Hanging on the Telephone report by the Citizens' Advice Bureau published in 2004 confirmed that we all know anecdotally: people find call centres irritating. The report found that 97 per cent of people surveyed said they found at least one aspect of using a call centre annoying. The most common complaint was being kept on hold for long periods and there was widespread annoyance at being given a multitude of options, and then receiving unsatisfactory service. In this report, perceived standards of service in call centres are shown to be polarised with a significant minority of users dissatisfied with the service they receive. Satisfaction tends to be highest with call centres operated by industries traditionally committed to delivering good customer service: retailers' call centres generate highest satisfaction, while call centres operated by utilities companies are seen to be least customer-friendly (67 per cent and 49 per cent of customers satisfied respectively). But even at 67 per cent satisfied (probably a result considered good by the organisations concerned) that leaves one third of customers dissatisfied, which should be seen as a disaster!
Remember, the received wisdom is that it costs five times more to find a new customer than it costs to retain an existing one. So make sure you have worked out which telephone sound works best for your brand and incorporate this in your company's Brand Guidelines (BGs).
Julian Treasure - a global expert in the evaluation, strategic planning, implementation and deployment of sound in business; the chairman of The Sound Agency - a leading audio-branding consultancy; the author of Sound Business, a seminal book on how to apply sound for business benefit, and the creator of BrandSoundTM : a strategic framework for the effective use of sound in brand management.