Phone-order business finds new service really connects


At Home Health Products Inc.'s Virginia Beach, Va., office, four order-takers were often overwhelmed when calls flooded the company's toll-free 800 line.

It was especially tough right after the flourishing mail-order natural health-care products company shipped a new catalog to hundreds of thousands of customers across the country.

Instead of hiring more people to take telephone orders in Virginia, founder and President Sam Knoll hooked up with a California company to handle the overflow calls during the day, after hours and on weekends. By sending out about 3 million catalogs and extending its telephone hours, Knoll's 14-employee company has grown 40 percent in sales this year.

"We just call-forward the calls to California when we need to," said Knoll, who plans to invest $20,000 to upgrade the company's overall telephone system.

Companies such as 800-Direct in Canoga Park, Calif., which answers calls for Home Health Products, have capitalized on the benefits of toll-free numbers.

"We present the image that your company is operating 24 hours a day," said Matt Epstein, vice president in charge of marketing.

In addition to taking computerized orders, companies such as 800-Direct can fulfill orders at their headquarters or relay orders and customer information back to your company via computer modem or fax.

"We handle the peaks and valleys so you don't have to worry about staff problems," said Rich Crocker, president of Inquiry Handling Service Inc. in San Fernando, Calif.

"For a small business, the telephone is the lifeline of the business," said Nancy Friedman, a consultant known as the "Telephone Doctor." Friedman, who is based in St. Louis, said successful business owners are those who train their employees to use the telephone properly.

Even the tiniest small business can appear to be big and professional by tapping into the right telecommunications technology. Computerized voice mail systems can route and answer calls and take detailed messages. New facsimile machines with memory can be programmed to send faxes early in the morning or overnight to save money when telephone rates are lowest.

Telephone companies, including Pacific Bell in California, offer customized 800 numbers for as little as $15 a month, plus installation and per-call charges. With these custom numbers, you can decide exactly which customers can reach you, limiting it to one prefix or stretching across state lines with the help of long-distance carriers. AT&T;, the pioneer of 800 numbers, also has various new 800 services for small and large companies.

"Most businesses don't really know how to use the telephone and fax," said Bernard Otis, founder of the Otis Group, a marketing firm based in Woodland Hills, Calif. Rather than using the telephone to cold-call customers, Otis believes that "true telemarketing is the professional use of the telephone to create a relationship with people."

Many business owners are unaware of how effective a tool a fax machine can be when trying to reach a decision maker. Instead of blindly faxing letters to people, Otis suggests first calling the person's office directly. If the person is unavailable, ask his or her secretary for permission to send a personal fax.

Once you have permission, send a letter that introduces yourself and explains exactly which service or products you offer. (If you can't obtain permission to use the fax, don't use it. Send a letter and hope for the best.)

"Another tip: Don't be a pest and call someone five times a day," Otis advised. Being a pest is not the way to make a good impression on people you want to do business with.

Telephone tips

"Telephone Doctor" Nancy Friedman says: "Think of the telephone as a stage: When the receiver goes up, the curtain goes up."

* Suggest that your employees smile before they answer the phone.

* Check your employees' phone manners by calling in anonymously on occasion.

* Make sure everyone is properly trained to answer calls the way you want them to.

* Have enough telephone lines and staff members to avoid putting customers on hold.

* Consider an 800 line for your business.

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