Making It Easy For Your Customers

(First published in the CAD++ Newsletter in mid-1994)

If you’re trying to sell something to a target audience, a number of things can impact whether a member of that audience will actually order something from you. It’s possible that if you have something your audience needs, they will order those products or services from you. But, let’s say you have competitors who sell identical products, or at least products that are perceived as identical by your potential customers.

What can you do to make sure that these potential customers choose to order from you, or even just talk to you so you can sell them on your offer and thereby not have them buy from or even talk to your competition?

Simply said, make the path to your door the path of least resistance. Make it painless for them to deal with you. Putting this concept to practice is not too difficult, providing you use some common sense, and are willing to spend a little money to earn a lot. Let’s look at some ways you can make it easy for potential customers to contact you.

Toll-Free Access
Almost every industrial nation in the world supports toll-free numbers of some sort. In all cases that I’m aware of, the “toll-free” implies that the caller is charged nothing for that call, which naturally implies that the person/company receiving the call picks up the tab for it. Here in North America, we have 800 numbers.

800 numbers originated many years ago as a way to make it painless (and free) for customers to call a vendor. Initially, vendors had to get several types of 800 numbers for nationwide coverage, including ones for their state, regional ones that might cover more states, and national numbers, that might or might not work in their state of business. When AT&T was forced to break itself up into smaller companies over a decade ago, a number of other companies, including Sprint and MCI got into the act, and started to offer their type of 800 numbers. Thanks to their competitive efforts, 800 service is now painless to set up and maintain, and you can enable or restrict access in many different ways. A local bike shop can actively choose to be accessible from all area codes within a 200 mile radius, for example. On the other hand, here at Panacea, our 800 number is callable from anywhere in North America including Canada and Alaska, as well as from Hawaii.

Your cost for offering 800 service varies anywhere from 10 to 50 cents a minute, depending on where the call is from, and there may also be a monthly fee of around $10 per 800 number. Looking at the numbers by themselves might make this look expensive, but if you figure that it significantly enhances your chances of having a customer call you and pay you money, it’s well worth the cost. Plus, it helps give your company a bigger image, and shows you’re serious about your business.

Getting the 800 service set up requires just a phone call to any long distance carrier – it does not have to be the same carrier you use for outgoing calls. For an installation fee (all installation is remote) of around $10 or $15, you can have your own 800 number, assigned to any of your incoming phone lines. In other words, when someone calls your 800 number, the call gets routed to your existing phone number – no new lines need to be added.

With 800 service this inexpensive, you can even set up private 800 numbers for special customers to call, or as a convenience for you to use to call your office when you’re on the road.

However, it’s important to remember that just having a public 800 number won’t get people to call you. You have to let them know about the number. Make sure to list it in big bold print on all your marketing materials and ads, and make sure to put it on your business cards as well.

A Little Known Benefit of 800 Numbers
Most consumers aren’t aware of this, but every time anyone calls an 800 number, the recipient of the call gets the caller’s phone number. For most companies, this information is provided with every monthly bill, but large organizations can arrange to get the number provided in parallel with the call. This latter step is how many cable companies implement Pay-Per-View (PPV) – they get the caller’s phone number, match it to their customer database, and then enable that specific household’s cable boxes for the PPV program. 800 numbers provide benefits similar to “Caller ID” to vendors. Small companies can take advantage of this as well, without having the expensive real-time tracking links to the long distance carrier, just by keeping a time log of incoming phone calls and matching it their bill every month – this way callers can get matched up to their phone numbers.

Don’t Rely On Just 800 Numbers
With the nice benefits of 800 numbers, it’s often easy to overlook that your international customers don’t have access to your 800 number. After all, if you advertise, you can bet that at some point your advertisement will probably make it overseas. Always make sure to list your non-toll-free number in your marketing materials in addition to your toll-free number, even if you put it in smaller print.

The Importance of Real FAX
Another vital thing to add to your marketing materials is a FAX number. If you don’t have a FAX machine, your business will never reach its full potential. They’re cheap – buy one. If you want to use a computer to act as your FAX machine instead, just make sure it’s on and actively expecting FAXes 24 hours a day. Also, while it’ll save you $20-30/month, having your FAX share your voice phone line conveys a negative image to your customers, plus, many of the line sharing devices are a pain for customers to connect through. The shared voice/FAX number just shouts “I’m a one-man company!” to your potential customers. If they are looking for long-term stability, you won’t get it with the one-man shop image. If you’re selling anything of value, and want to sell more of it, get a separate FAX phone line.

Why is FAX that important? Tons of reasons!

  • International customers, by virtue of time zone differences and verbal communications barriers, tend to use FAXes to convey information and ask questions.
  • A FAX machine also acts as an answering machine that accepts written messages.
  • You can get contracts, purchase orders, and signed order forms sent to you in a flash.
  • FAX signatures are considered legal and binding in many states.
  • Also, sending a one page FAX during the evening or night is actually a lot cheaper than sending a one-page letter first class via the mail.
  • Sending a FAX is much more timely than mailing the same thing.
  • A FAX can be photocopied and distributed, whereas a voice message cannot.
  • A FAX shows your customers you’re serious about doing business with them.

Convinced yet? I hope so. The FAX is perhaps the most powerful piece of office equipment you can own, besides a telephone and a computer. And again, don’t forget to list your FAX number in every advertisement and marketing piece you produce!

An Answer For Everything
Unless you eat, sleep, and shower with your phone, at some point you’re going to be in a position when you can’t answer the phone when it rings. And the potential customer at the other end is going to be quite perturbed that he can’t get anyone to answer the phone. The solution is simple – get an answering machine. Make sure the message you record lets the caller know you care about their call and that it will be returned as soon as possible. If you keep some sort of regular business schedule, make sure you put that information on your tape as well.

Some answering machines are set up to automatically page their owners via a paging device if a call comes in, while others can be found built into phones or FAX machines (make sure it’s a two line FAX). What you buy should depend on your needs and habits.

Who Needs Telex?
While it once had its heyday, Telex service is a dying breed, totally superseded by the inexpensive and pervasive nature of FAX machines. It’s probably safe to not bother with Telex anymore.

Do It Electronically
Perhaps the biggest new communications technology after FAX, and fast becoming an easy access necessity, is electronic mail (e-mail). I won’t spend a lot of time here discussing the various types of e-mail you can get, other than to tell you that if you do get e-mail (and I recommend it very highly), make sure that people can send you mail over the Internet. Virtually all e-mail and on-line systems offer that sort of connection these days, at varying prices. If the service you’re looking at doesn’t, find another service.

Don’t Forget The Post Office
While all the other technologies described above are instant access technologies, it’s important not to forget the good old post office. Business reply postcards and envelopes are a great way to make it easy for potential customers to get written information back to you. This can be somewhat costly however, running you around 55 cents for each such  postcard a potential customer returns to you, and a little more for an envelope. All that means, though, is that you should make sure that you get something valuable back via the business reply card or envelope, such as a valuable new lead or even an order.

Let Customer Decide How To Pay
Nothing in modern merchandising bothers me more than when I go to a store and try to pay with my American Express card, only to be told they don’t accept them because American Express charges them too much for processing. The net result is that I usually won’t go to that store in the future and will instead go to a competitor that lets me pay the way I want to. The same goes for you as a company. Just because American Express may charge you an additional percentage point or two on the transaction, is it worth losing the sale (or future sales) because of a measly few dollars? I don’t think so. Those that think otherwise are extremely shortsighted.

Of course, if you don’t currently accept any credit cards as payment, you’ve got even a bigger problem. Talk to your local bank and see what it’s going to take to be able to accept credit cards. A lot of banks give small companies, especially ones that do a lot of mail order business, a hard time in getting merchant status for things like Visa and MasterCard. Persevere and you will usually get the result you want. If not, lots of independent services will process credit cards for you, for a small fee. Ironically, American Express is a breeze to get to be authorized to process – just call the local American Express office to have someone visit you. I should mention that credit card processors tend to charge anywhere from 1% to 5% of the transaction amount, with the range in fees depending on your volume and average charge amount. Fees aside, credit cards are THE most convenient form of payment for most of your potential customers. If you force them to send you a check instead, you’ll loose a lot of sales.

Obviously, you should take checks, and if you’re concerned about them bouncing, just wait a few days to let them clear before sending out product.

CODs (Cash On Delivery, offered by most parcel carriers) are also check based, in that you get checks returned to you a few days after your product is delivered to the customer. You can specify whether you want to limit the checks the carrier accepts for your product to just cashier’s checks or money orders, which are almost as good as cash. You can also specify you will take personal and company checks – these have more risk associated with them, but the odds are still in your favor.

Finally, many large companies really like to have payment terms, so they can pay you 15, 30, 45, or more days after you bill them (and after they receive your product). This form of payment is much more difficult for smaller companies to handle, but if you require the buyer to provide a written purchase order (or just P.O.) in order to process such an order, your likelihood of getting ripped of are greatly diminished. One word of warning, however – avoid taking P.O.’s from outside your country. If a foreign company defaults on payment to you, there’s usually little you can do exact compensation from them. In your own country you can at least use collection agencies, for a fee, of course.

Conclusion
I’ve shown you a great many ways to make it easier for potential customers to contact you and order from you. Most of these methods are really just common sense. However, many people, especially small business owners, have a propensity for being penny wise and pound foolish, and therefore don’t take advantage of the small things that might cost a little bit of money in order to make lots more. Don’t let this lack of vision happen to you.