You can't do business if you aren't accessible

Over the years, I've asked a lot of people what makes a great salesperson. The answers are fairly predictable: passion, persistence, likability, planning, trustworthiness, strong work ethic, initiative, intelligence, good communication skills, sense of humor, humility, good timing, strong relationships building and follow-up (or, as I say, the sale begins when the customer says yes).

My own answer is always the same: hungry fighter. In many ways, that embodies all of the above traits.

Further, I would argue that the second most important factor is accessibility. I seldom do business with people who are not accessible. If I can't reach you immediately, I want to know that you'll get back to me within minutes or hours, not days. If you're slow to answer the call, your phone will stop ringing.

Notice I say "accessible" instead of "available," because accessibility includes availability, plus user-friendliness, convenience and more. When you have questions, you want to talk to someone who has answers. If your salesperson doesn't, he or she must be able to find someone who does.

Salespeople, as well as those in customer service, need to understand the importance of accessibility. Woody Allen said, "Eighty percent of success is showing up." That may be true in some businesses, but it falls far short in sales and service. Would you be satisfied if a salesperson was available for only four out of five customers?

Personal story: I fly tens of thousands of uneventful miles every year, but I recently had a frustrating experience with a major airline that sent my blood pressure skyrocketing. Bad weather at the origin of my connecting flight caused my flight to be delayed five times before it was canceled. Instead of putting me on the next available flight, the airline assigned me on the same flight -- 24 hours later! But no official announcements came. A fellow traveler got an e-mail on his iPhone and shared the news.

We were told an agent would be at the gate to help us, but after 30 minutes, no one had shown up. The phone lines at the rebooking center were jammed. The computer screens were down. I tried the toll-free number and was told I'd be on hold for 30 minutes. After just a few minutes, the hold message turned into a busy signal. I couldn't reach a human being.

In desperation I called my travel agent, who found a flight on another carrier leaving within an hour. He also found several other available flights that evening that could have accommodated most of the delayed travelers, but the airline didn't offer any of those options. Note to self: Never fly that airline again. Ever.

We want to be able to count on people in an emergency. That airline doesn't realize that the more accessible you are, the more accessible your entire organization becomes.

I think what frustrates people the most is when they can't reach anyone. As necessary and popular as they are, I have never been a fan of voice mail or automated systems. That's why we still have a receptionist -- a live person -- answering calls from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at MackayMitchell Envelope Co. Our salespeople share after-hours emergency contact information as well. We will never get rid of the personal touch.

Can you be accessible 24/7? Technically, yes. But should you be accessible all the time? Of course not.

But you do have to get back to people promptly, even if just to tell them that you got their message and are working on their request. If you want to depend on your customers' business, you must remember that your customers depend on you.

Perhaps you've seen a variation of the parable of the ignored customer. Its message should resonate with every business that needs customers.

"I'm the person who goes into a restaurant, sits down patiently and waits while the servers do everything but take my order. I'm the person who goes into a store and stands quietly while the salespeople finish their little chitchat. I'm the person who goes into a reception room on time for a business appointment and stands by the desk while the receptionist finishes her personal phone call.

"You might say I'm a patient person. But do you know who else I am? I'm the person who never comes back!"

Mackay's Moral: You can't reach the top if your customers can't reach you.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman and author. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or send e-mail to harvey@mackay.com. His column is distributed by United Feature Syndicate.

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