As much as people blather on about SEO, social media presence and “rating” sites like Yelp, if you have a brick-and-mortar presence—and particularly if that’s where most of your revenue comes from—the human interface trumps all of them. Manage your Web presence, curate and respond to reviews, and tweet pithy nuggets of hipness all you want. If a customer calls your store and he or she doesn’t get a great experience, it’s all for nothing.

Yes, I said “call.” Given the omnipresent cell phone, fewer people than ever will look you up and come waltzing into your store based on a search. (More do seem to come directly in when referred by peers.) People know Web presence can be manipulated. Look at the difference between real estate listings and a walk-through—“cozy,” as in “tiny and cramped”—or the favorable pics on eBay that skillfully (or blatantly) mask flaws in a listed item. People don’t trust prepared statements, and they do want to talk to a human. That’s the biggest reason they’re not just buying on the Web. Consumers already have the ability to do anything online, including rent instruments. That guarantees a percentage of buyers will never cross our thresholds. How much more important, then, are the people who contact us to determine which store they will visit?

For this reason, the person answering the phone should be one of the most experienced, cordial, nurturing people on staff. Too often, answering the phone is relegated to a newbie staffer who just patches callers through to a department. On the other end of the line is a caller who simply wants an answer, but who might not even know how to phrase the question. Customers garble book titles, mispronounce product names and, sometimes, they’re looking for a product that only exists in their heads—or in a museum. Pair them with an inexperienced employee (or a gearhead manager without empathy) and it won’t go well.

I always say that our phone is like the Bat-phone: It never rings unless someone needs help. The problem is, the nature of the help is all over the map; it spans every instrument, all of music history, and every feature and service your store provides, including (if you offer lessons) child-development advice, emotional handholding and air traffic control.

Of course, in a larger store, there are likely department managers, lesson coordinators or repair techs to answer the detailed inquiries. But, at each step, whomever the potential customer talks to must be helpful, knowledgeable, engaging, patient and a skilled verbal communicator with great listening skills. That’s a BIG requirement, and I guarantee that three out of four people need training to manifest more than one of those talents…let alone all of them simultaneously.

That initial phone pickup is crucial, even if there is a handoff to a manager. Delivering an energetic greeting and conveying the intent to help will engage customers, even when they have to wait to talk to someone who has the answers (as long as that person does, indeed, provide answers, as opposed to handing them off again.)

Of course, there’s been a Kindle full of books written about phone etiquette, using the hold button and the standard business practices of phone contact, but trust me…it’s still not common knowledge. Although a lot might seem obvious to you, it might not be to a person who spends most of his or her phone time texting. I’ve also observed listening skills plummet atrociously over the last 15 years, to the point that a startling number of people under 30 clock out before a sentence is finished. Wait…what?! Exactly. That results in a phone handoff that might be something like, “The guy on the phone is looking for—is it Ekaphone?—some parts for a guitar, or maybe a repair. I don’t know. He had some kind of accent….” The call can turn out to be someone looking for an Epiphone with humbuckers, selling a guitar that’s missing parts, or…anything else.

Before you rail against The Youth Of Today, I believe this is mostly due to a lack of training. A willing person can build listening skills. It’s important to note that the call is salvageable if the staffer was pleasant and helpful. For example: “Let me have you talk to Bobby. He can help you with guitars. Can I put you on hold while I get him?” However, leaving that staffer to field all the answers alone will only generate pages of garbled phone messages and frustrated customers. It’s in your best interest to spend the time on training and, in the meantime, to let staff members who are more experienced handle the calls. An aside: Being “pleasant and helpful” trumps being knowledgeable. You can instill knowledge, but an unpleasant person will only sound fake when “trained” to be pleasant.

“Pleasant” shouldn’t evaporate as the call is bucked up the management ladder, either. Even—no, especially—the store owner or manager must be unfailingly pleasant and engaging. Yes, you’re busy, tired and stressed…but so are your callers. It’s your job to help them. Get to work!

Seems pretty obvious, right? Unfortunately, I’ve found that that isn’t the case in our market. The problem is likely endemic to the industry, and the flaws are not only at big stores. Every single day in the month of September, we fielded a stream of calls from customers who said, “Thank you! You’re the (third, fourth, FIFTH) store I’ve called, and you were the only one willing to help me!”


Often, we were out of the rental instrument or book the customer needed, but we still answered questions, made suggestions and offered to order when possible. These people came in, bought what they could from us, often signed up for lessons and became our customers. It wasn’t because we had the lowest rental price, biggest inventory or closest location. (One woman came 25 miles across the county to buy a used violin because Allie was so helpful on the phone.) It was all thanks to good phone skills.

Maybe this sounds like one of those poorly produced, platitudinous videos they show kids in grade school. But I’ve seen so much evidence that this works—and so much evidence that it isn’t common in the industry—that a reminder couldn’t hurt. If you’re hearing, “You’re the only one who helped me!” comments from your customers, congratulations. If you aren’t…you might want to listen in on the phone calls coming into your store.

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