Dec. 16 2008 12:00 AM

STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURES (SOPs) are the lifeblood of any successful company and should be developed for every process in your business. You should have procedures for everything from hiring new employees to equipment maintenance, to how to properly install pavers. If you don’t have a standardized procedure, how can an employee know if he’s doing something right or wrong? If you, or a handful of managers or foremen, are the only ones that know how to get things done, how are you going to grow your company?

Don’t let the term ‘Standard Operating Procedures’ make you nervous. We all have dozens of procedures that we’ve developed just to manage our daily lives. For example, my typical morning SOP goes like this. I wake up at 6:00 a.m. and hit the snooze alarm twice (not once, but twice). After that, my wife kicks me and I finally get up, make coffee and take a shower. Next I shave, get dressed, walk the dog (okay, I let her out in the backyard), eat a bowl of cereal and then go to work. I have done this for five or six days a week for more years than I can remember.

Each of us has our own morning routine or SOP. Our concepts are similar but we all execute them very differently, at different times of the day. The trick for us as business owners is to develop one way, or “standard,” for doing each thing in our companies. Next, we need to teach the way we do things, or “operate,” to our managers. Ultimately, we need to write these steps down into a series of “procedures” for all of our employees to follow and incorporate them into an employee manual or handbook.

Now is the perfect time to develop Standard Operating Procedures for your entire company. The winter is coming and I don’t need to remind you that the economy is slow. I could write an entire book on the subject, and hopefully will one day, but for now let’s look at just one small piece of the puzzle so that you can begin to develop and appreciate the value of creating SOPs for your business. We are going to start at the very beginning and focus on the first business interaction, the initial phone call. I admit that it doesn’t sound sexy or even like it should take more than a few sentences to cover; however, I guarantee that if you read this entire article (including the bio about me at the end) you will never take this process for granted. A properly written and executed telephone SOP or “phone script” will help you and your company succeed in more ways than you can possibly imagine—from customer satisfaction to increased sales to employee retention. How is this possible, you ask—well, please read on.

The purpose of a phone script is threefold:

To make sure that everyone who answers the phone does it correctly and consistently.

To obtain correct contact and project information to determine the next step in the process.

To evaluate the quality of your calls based on the information you obtain.

The way the initial phone call is handled and how your customer feels during those first few minutes is going to set the tone for the rest of your customer’s experience and your entire business relationship. Does it sound like there’s a lot riding on this call? You’re damn right it does. Most of the time, the initial phone call is the first interaction that a client will have with your company— what first impression are you making? Do you make the customer feel comfortable and at ease or rushed and unwanted? Is the person answering the phone too loud or too soft spoken? Do they sound cheerful or apathetic? Do they say what you want them to say and ask the right questions?

Years ago, I worked with a company who had a secretary that would end a phone call without saying goodbye. Can you believe it? She didn’t say goodbye. On top of this, she was very heavy handed when she hung up the phone. Can you imagine what you would feel like calling a landscape company to have some work done and the person answering the phone ends the conversation and doesn’t say goodbye? And then proceeds to “slam” down the phone? Hey, I want those guys doing my installation—not!

Now you might be saying to yourself, “This is ridiculous, I would never allow this in my office.” Maybe or maybe not. I’ll bet that if you pay close attention to how your phones are answered, you’ll begin to notice very subtle (and some not so subtle) things being said that are making your customers not like your company. Not because your employees are bad or mean; on the contrary, most are good and well intentioned. It just means that no one has really thought about this issue and dealt with it. Your employees are just answering the phones the way they always have.

Alright already, so what do you have to do? You need to create a phone script that is easy to follow and does not sound scripted (ironic, isn’t it?). You need to control the call, get the information you need and give the information you need. This has to be done both pleasantly and efficiently without sounding like an android or like you are prying into someone’s personal life. Correct information is vital. In addition to their names, spelled correctly I might ad, get the complete street name spelled out, including, road, drive, court, etc. Many towns have similar street names, such as Lawson Street and Lawson Road. These streets could be 10-15 minutes away from each other, and going to the wrong one is not good on your first appointment. Also get a cross street, just in case it is a new street. Finally, get the zip code. It’s so easy to do it now, and once it’s in the system it’s in the system.

Next, all three phone numbers— home, work and cell. Isn’t that invasive? Isn’t that too much information? No, it’s not. It’s a good business practice and I’ll tell you why. Like many of you, I do a lot of evening appointments after regular business hours. For a variety of reasons, I may be running late for an appointment. Now, being the nice guy that I am I would always call the clients to let them know that I am running late and to apologize. If I have their cell phone number, I can get in touch with them no matter where they are—home, work or in the car.

Take down their email address. As far as I’m concerned, an email address is like asking for a home address. Most people love email. The truth of the matter is that getting an email address is one of the smartest things a company can do. After the initial call, you can send an email thank you. You can confirm appointments via email, send proposals, change orders, ask questions, and even send follow-up letters if you don’t get the work. Email allows you to send out monthly newsletters to keep you on your customer’s mind, and it costs next to nothing.

Make sure you ask the client how they heard about your company. This is very important information that you must really keep track of. As a salesperson, I want to know if this lead is from the Yellow Pages, an expensive glossy magazine, or if it’s a referral. As a business owner, I want to know where my advertising dollars are working most effectively so I can determine where my strongest leads come from and budget accordingly.

Once you have all of the client’s contact information, the rest of the phone script should be about the work itself. Just ask the customer to describe in their own words what type of work they would like to have done, and then make sure you write down the exact words that the customer uses. If they say they want a unique landscape or a formal design, write this down. If they want a free estimate or are just looking for ideas, you should write this down, too. After a short time, you will begin to recognize what key words and phrases people use that will help you determine what type of customer they are and what type of project they have.

Now, after you have all of the information that you need and before you hang up, just recap the time, date and location of the appointment and ask the client, “Can I help you with anything else?“ If they say no, finish with “Thank you for calling and have a nice day.” On the surface, this all seems so very basic, and it truly is. However, I cannot impress upon you enough how much work and how much money is lost by not developing and following these simple procedures.