When she makes phone calls, Carrie Stock, officer manager for Ray Johnson Home Improvement, often finds that none of the options offered by an automated answering system quite fit. “I'm so happy to get to a live person,” she says.

That's one reason why Stock believes it is more efficient for a prospective customer to immediately connect with a live person right away — a stance that owner Ray Johnson, who hates automated attendants, supports. Stock makes it a point to answer all phone calls at the Cumberland, Md., siding and window company. The occasional caller who goes into voicemail gets his or her call returned within half an hour.

FIRST AND ONLY CHANCE Pam Faerber, co-owner of Bee Windows in Lafayette, Ind., also finds automated phone answering objectionable. Bee Windows has a live body answering the phone all day for two reasons, Faerber points out: “We don't want to cause our customers frustration,” she says, “and we get just one opportunity to make a first impression. We can't blow it. We don't want that [impression] to be an automated voice but one of our people, who can show that they care.”

Customers who are having a problem want to be able to talk to someone, Stock says. “You can't relate to a recording.” Elderly people especially may not feel right about talking to a machine, and “everyone likes the warm, fuzzy feeling of talking to a person,” she adds.

ROLL IT OVER Of course, companies can't have a live person answering the phone around the clock. Unless, like WeatherTite Windows in Girard, Ohio, they use an answering service, which president Merv Hollander describes as having “a certain degree of business acumen.” He adds that it is important to respond promptly to those evening and weekend messages. “We tell them: ‘We'll handle your call first thing out of the chute in the morning,'” Hollander says.

Those callers who contact Bee Windows by phone after hours reach an automated attendant, and they often end up leaving messages in the wrong voicemail box. To minimize the number of messages taken by the automatic system, the company has calls roll over to its inside sales department until 8 p.m.

Even when a live person answers the phone, customers sometimes have to be put on hold. Marshall Roofing in Lorton, Va., is looking for a system to deliver a useful message about the company during that time. “If I have to put them on hold, I want them to stay on the line,” says office manager Annette Dunbar.

Answering the phone all day takes effort, but Stock believes that it's well worthwhile. “Customers will switch to companies that appreciate and respect them. When a job is awarded to us, people say it all started off with the lady in the office who made them feel very welcome and then the salesperson who was down to earth. You have a bonding on the phone.”