One of the little-recognized benefits of the bootstrapped startup is what happens with the phones. The founders answer. Looking back — I posted earlier today on this blog about Palo Alto Software history — I’m grateful for the slow bootstrapped growth of Palo Alto Software, which meant that I was answering the phone. In the early days I took the sales calls, and the support calls, and most of the other calls.

This comes up because I just read Seth Godin’s Who answers the phone post. Like so many of his posts, it takes something that should be obvious, but isn’t; or something we all know, but ignore; and reminds us. Here’s one of the highlights:

An inbound phone call is the ultimate in short-term permission. The customer or prospect is taking the time to call you. She’s focused, interested, paying attention and willing to trust you.

Think for a minute about how much you spend (and how high up in the organization the discussions go) when it’s time for a new logo or a new Super Bowl ad.

And yet, even though the rules have changed, the lowest-paid, least-respected, highest-turnover jobs in the organization now do the most important marketing work.

So that last point isn’t necessarily true in startups and small business. Maybe that’s why I’ve always like small business better than large. Even as we grew past the $2 million annual sales mark, and had 10 or so employees, I was still taking calls daily during peak times. That wasn’t our organizational design, but I couldn’t stand hearing the phone ring if the others were already occupied.

And here’s an interesting coincidence of history: Sabrina Parsons, now CEO of Palo Alto Software, was the first “other person on the phone” for this company. That was almost 20 years ago, so she was pretty young, but also smart, and she always had good instinct about the importance of the customer. And I’ve seen her answering customer calls off and on as director of marketing and as CEO.

The last snow day we had, Sabrina and I were the only ones answering the phones for a while. That’s CEO and president, in a 40-person company. Happily, most of the rest of the team got in within an hour or so, and left us with our normal jobs.

I’m also grateful to Jake, and to Sabrina for getting Jake back from WebEx, and the team he runs. You’ve seen the recent posts on this blog. I don’t think we’ve forgotten who drives the business.

Still, reminders are always welcome. Jake and his team have been focusing a lot of effort on training and analyzing and doing this better. Seth continues:

Shouldn’t every single inbound call be answered in one ring? Shouldn’t there be as much spent on self-service customer support as is spent on the design of the selling part of your website? Shouldn’t you be tracking in the finest detail what people have to say when they call in? Shouldn’t you be rewarding call center operators by how long they keep people on the phone, not how many calls they can handle a minute? Shouldn’t there be an easy, fast and happy way for an operator to instantly upgrade a call to management (not a supervisor, I hate supervisors) who can actually learn something from the caller, not just make them go away?

And I guess that’s my biggest point: the goal of every single interaction should be to upgrade the brand’s value in the eye of the caller and to learn something about how to do better, not to get the caller to just go away.

We had a program a few years ago to put all of our Palo Alto Software marketing team onto the telephone with customers for a half day every week. That of course is a bit off point, because it’s about helping them (the marketing team) as much as it is about helping the customers; we gave it up eventually because we wanted out customer team to help our customers, rather than have our customers training our marketing team.

However, from a management point of view, talking to the customers is one of the best possible ways to spend time. Sure, there are lots of surveys and things, or focus groups, but there’s nothing to replace actually talking to people one by one. The best market research is sales.

Tim Berry
President (and founder)
Palo Alto Software

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Tim BerryTim Berry
Tim Berry

Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software and Bplans.com. Follow him on Twitter @Timberry.