How many times a day when you make a phone call do you get someone's voicemail and hear, "I'm not available?"
What exactly does that mean?
The person could be powdering their nose for two minutes, gone to a client meeting for two hours, on maternity leave for six months—or, have been transferred to the mailroom in Beijing! You have no idea.
You had phoned for a reason: to get information, to place an order, to extend an invitation to meet, to do business. But now you hang up in disgust, your mission thwarted.
Now you have to invest time figuring out your next, hopefully productive, step. Do you check the web for their corporate number, another branch number, or simply find another "source" altogether, giving your business to a competitor? Perhaps with your time constraint you are forced to simply table your project.
If this were your business, you'd have just lost a customer.
Now it's time to check your own voicemail.
With all of the competition out there and access to information at one's fingertips on the web, people have untold choices when they need a real estate attorney, a construction engineer, an investment advisor, a party planner, a temp agency... or whatever it is you do.
If you want to build your business, you need to build relationships, and this requires showing respect for your caller's time and energy.
"Not available" is simply dismissive. It communicates to the person that their need is not that important to you.
And it either causes your potential customer to hang up, or to get stuck going through an obstacle course in which they get the main switchboard and are given the third degree: "What's your name? What's your affiliation? Why are you calling? Whom do you want to speak with?"
The alternative is simple: Provide in your voice message a phone number and refer the caller to an assistant, a colleague, a cell number—any way of expediting their quest. Help your caller to reach someone who can, in your absence, be helpful and succeed in keeping the business.
And remember to update your voicemail message when appropriate. Recently I called an office and heard: "I'll be back February 1st." It happened to be March 17th!
Investing a mere 60 seconds can keep a client and their business while enhancing your reputation.
Arlene B. Isaacs is an executive coach in New York City.