10 ways to save people time via Web, phone, and e-mail

People often tell me how much technology aggravates them, thereby wasting their time. I generally reply that really, technology doesn't aggravate people. Rather, people aggravate other people by the way they design and use technology. Here are a few tips for effectively using technology so that you don't waste the time of your customers, colleagues, and boss.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

Web tips

#1: Publicize your prohibited/restricted applications

Do you have restrictions on applications your users can run? For example, at Temple University, Skype is generally unavailable over wireless, due to security concerns. So too is Outlook Express, over either wireless or Ethernet. In such cases, tell your customers, perhaps via the Web. If you don't, they'll waste time trying to make the application work or calling the internal help desk or vendor technical support. Explaining the restrictions won't resolve the technical issue, but it will save them from wasting time trying to find a nonexistent solution.

#2: Distinguish between "Contact us" and "E-mail us" links

If your customers see a link labeled "Contact us," they will probably (and rightly) assume that the link will take them to a page with contact information. That page might contain telephone and fax numbers, e-mail and U.S. mail addresses, and perhaps a fill-in form. Too often, however, I have clicked on such a link only to find that it brought up an e-mail form or started an e-mail message, instead of taking me to a Web page. If all you're offering is an e-mail form, don't call it a "Contact us" link. Call it an "E-mail us" link instead.

Voicemail tips

#3: Update your voicemail greeting to reflect your absence

If you're going to be out of the office for an extended time, for example, because of vacation or business travel, say so in your voicemail greeting. People who call will have a more realistic expectation of whether you'll be returning their calls. Think about your own situation: Haven't you ever been frustrated at not getting a return call after leaving someone a voicemail and calling back repeatedly, hoping to reach that person "live"? If you know that person is away, you save time by not trying to call.

#4: Refer or forward calls when you're absent

When you're away, it's great to modify your voicemail greeting to refer callers to other people, such as a peer or subordinate. If you do, though, consider taking the extra step and include that person's telephone number. Even better, set your "zero out" option to go to that person or forward your phone to that person.

#5: Know how to put a caller directly into voicemail

Let's say you're the assistant for someone and you receive a call for that person, who is away. Often, the caller will ask to be put into that person's voicemail. If you haven't done so, take a second and learn how to put the caller directly into that voicemail. Don't say to the caller (as has been done to me many times), "Could you call back, and I won't pick up?"

This ability to "back door" into voicemail is also important if the caller merely wants to leave a message rather than disturb the person by having that person's phone ring.

Interactive voice response (IVR) system tips

#6: Account for business vs. nonbusiness hours

Have you ever been told to press 0 for a live person, only to get a second message that the business is closed? Or even worse, have you heard only incessant ringing after pressing 0? It's okay not to be open 24/7, and your customers and callers understand that. However, do something with your IVR to let them know what your hours are. The best way is to program the IVR to compare the actual time and day with your hours of operation and to make the appropriate announcement. If you can't do that, at least tell callers, in one of the IVR messages, what your hours are.

#7: Don't hide IVR options

Callers often have enough frustration with IVRs. Don't make them play hide and seek with your options. In particular, if your IVR has a directory name lookup feature, tell callers at the beginning. I've often run into IVRs that do have this feature but fail to announce it. I've also encountered IVRs that offer this feature but tell you only if you first select the option to dial by extension number. These two options (dial by name and dial by extension) are peers, not hierarchical. If your IVR has both options, announce them at the same time. Don't make the announcement of the second option conditional on callers selecting the first option.

#8: Include your telephone number with every message you leave

Obvious as it sounds, omitting your number makes it harder and more time consuming for people to call you back. They may not have their PDA with them and they may not be at their computer, so they can't look you up. Even if they know one of your numbers, you may be at another one.

E-mail tips

#9: Use an e-mail autoreply if you're away

This advice parallels the one regarding voicemail greetings. If you're away, set the expectations of people who send you e-mail. You can save them time by letting them know of your absence, so they can find alternate people to contact.

#10: Use the subject line of e-mail as executive summary

Television and radio news programs often "tease" the viewer or listener by giving only sparse details of an upcoming story. To hear the entire story, viewers must stay tuned until after the commercial or wait until the broadcast.

Don't treat your e-mail recipients like viewers or listeners. Put your key information in the subject line, making the subject line an executive summary. If you're asking whether a person is available to meet at 1:00 on December 10, which subject line would the recipient probably prefer to see?

  • "Proposed date and time of meeting"
  • "Are you free to meet at 1 pm on December 10?"