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How to Automate a Business Phone System Correctly

This article aims to provide crucial details on this subject based on my 35 years of experience as a developer of business phone systems.

Telephone receptionist

Telephone receptionist

This guide applies to any type of automated business phone system. You'll need this after your system is already installed with all wiring and phone connections completed.

I'll give you the information you need to program your automated attendant to handle your callers efficiently.

A proper configuration is crucial to provide an excellent first impression of your business.

There are three parts to a business phone system:

  1. The main component is the PBX, which stands for “Private Branch Exchange.” A live person is required to answer and route incoming calls unless the system includes item "2" below.
  2. An automated attendant provides a menu of options that callers can use to route calls without the need for a live receptionist.
  3. Finally, a voicemail component will allow callers to leave messages for personnel.

Benefits of an Automated Phone System

Business calls can interfere with employee's concentration and give them the extra responsibility to take messages for other employees. An automated phone system allows personnel to be more productive, but only if it's programmed to route callers properly.

Callers can be routed to specific phones in the office automatically. In many cases, personnel can even forward their extensions to outside locations, or cell phones.

With voicemail included, the system will take messages for busy personnel. Each individual can record his or her greeting that plays to the caller if they don't answer.

An automated attendant can also allow callers to listen to recorded information without waiting for a live person to answer routine questions. That's great for providing business hours, directions to your office, listing job offerings, and answers to any other frequently asked questions.

How Do Multiple Callers Get Through on One Number?

If you only have one phone line, then only one caller will get through. A second caller will get a busy signal because your phone company cannot deliver the second call.

If you don't want your callers to get busy signals, you need a separate phone line for each simultaneous caller.

You need the appropriate number of phone lines to support the call volume you expect to have, and your phone system needs to support the additional lines.

For example, if you have ten extensions, and five people are usually on outside phone calls all at once, you will need five phone lines coming in from your phone company. If all five lines are in use, then the next caller will get a busy signal.

The actual method of delivering incoming calls is a function of the phone company. Every caller dials the same number, your main company number. The phone company provides a feature called rollover service. If the first line is busy, the next caller rolls over to the next available line.

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Busy signals can be avoided by having enough phone lines to deliver all possible simultaneous callers.

How to Make a Business Phone System Handle Your Callers Properly

When programming the menu options, it’s essential to consider the logical placement of the departments and personnel in your company. A well-organized phone menu will help callers get through quickly.

You’ll want to point your caller in the right direction without confusing choices. An easy-to-follow menu is crucial, with options for specific departments, personnel, or other information.

How do you go about planning the proper structure for your menu? Think about what most of your callers are calling about and what do they need from you. Also, consider how well your customers know your company.

  • Do they routinely contact specific personnel?
  • Do they know the extension numbers?
  • Do they know the last name of your staff?
  • Or do they just have a vague idea of what department they need to reach?

Knowing this, you can design your phone menu to handle the needs of your customers.

If you have many people calling with common questions or need information about your products, include an option such as "Press 5 for information about our widgets."

If your customers know your personnel by name, then it is helpful to offer a dial-by-name directory. The caller is instructed to dial the last name on the phone's keypad.

Remember that if someone leaves your company, or you hire others, you need to keep your phone directory up to date.

As a security measure, to be sure you don't lose callers, it is helpful always to give a caller an option to get to an operator by pressing zero. Your operator could be your receptionist or anyone who can help callers who need guidance.

Phone caller pressing menu options

Phone caller pressing menu options

Automated Business Phone System Etiquette

It's a good business practice to make it as easy as possible for your callers to get through to the appropriate person to help them. The following points are crucial.

Provide Useful Menu Choices

It's customary to place departments in the menu and assign extensions for personnel. In some cases, you may want to put people in the menu, so your caller would hear, "For Sally Jones, press 1, for John Smith, press 2, etc."

Note that you are giving your caller an idea of the size of your company in this case. You can avoid that with a Dial-By-Name feature instead, and making that one of the menu choices.

Give Callers a Quick Live Person With Option Zero

Many people are in a rush, and some don't have the patience to listen to the entire menu. You don't want to lose those potential customers, and you definitely don't want to frustrate them. Many times these callers want to press zero for immediate attention by a real person. Therefore, it's advisable to make menu option zero ring to an attendant who can help them or direct the call.

Don't Mix Business and Personal Greetings

Another important thing is not to mix business and personal greetings. When your employees forward their extensions to their cell phones or home phones, they may not want their callers to hear their outgoing greeting message if they don't answer a transferred call.

Call screening can be used to block the personal greeting of the destination, so the caller only hears the professional greeting provided under the extension. If a cell phone's voice mail answers, the caller will not be connected. Instead, the caller will be taken back and dropped into the business system's voice mail with the appropriate business-related greeting.

Call Screening

Instead of connecting when answered, it first plays the caller's name to the recipient. Then they can press a key to accept the call. If voice mail answers, it will not return a key tone, so the phone system will take the caller back, as I just explained above.

Call Processing When Personnel Are Not Available

Your personnel may not always be available to take calls. But it is necessary to take care of your customers when they call.

So when a call goes unanswered, quickly directing the caller to an appropriate voice mailbox with instructions in the greeting, will help assure your caller that he or she will be taken care of promptly.

When your personnel needs privacy to accomplish involved tasks, their extensions can be set to "Do-Not-Disturb" mode so that important callers don't just hear ringing or fall into "Voice Mail Jail."

Instead, when an extension is set as Do-Not-Disturb, it will play an alternate greeting that the mailbox user had set up to handle callers when they are unavailable. This greeting is known as an "Unavailable Greeting." It gives instructions to your caller, such as what extension to dial for immediate service by another employee.

The fact that the mailbox user can record both a regular greeting and an unavailable greeting makes it easy to switch to Do-Not-Disturb (or unavailable mode) and back again without the need to record a new greeting.

Remember, you do need to follow up with all messages. So your personnel must check their voice mailboxes on a routine basis or have a message notification method enabled.

How to Connect Remote Workers Through Your Phone System

If you have a mobile workforce, employ Work-at-Home Personnel, or have satellite offices, you must tie all your workers together in a unified phone system, so they are accessible to your callers.

Some phone systems allow programming extensions to route calls to outside numbers. If you have that feature, create extensions for all remote personnel who need to be accessible.

Proper Use of Extension Cellphones

If your remote personnel are not at specific locations, you can program the phone system extensions to route calls to their mobile phones. A caller who dials their extension will get connected via the cell phone without even knowing that they are not physically in the office.

However, you may want to consider that missed calls left in voice mail may not be picked up and returned in a timely manner. A solution is to disable call screening and let all calls drop into their cellphone's voice mail if there is no answer.

The benefit is that they will not have to check for messages in two places. They just need to check the cellphone, which probably has a message-waiting signal to indicate a missed call.

Note that the caller will hear the personal greeting on the cellphone if there is no answer. So the greeting has to relate to the business if this method is used unless your system can bypass that greeting, as I discussed earlier.

Proper planning will make a great impression on your callers when they find it easy to get in touch with the appropriate personnel to achieve their intended goals. This benefits both you and your clients.

Remote worker answering phone

Remote worker answering phone

Making a Phone System Handle Your Needs

You'll want to consider the flexibility of use and how your callers will be able to get the most benefit from your custom automated attendant menu.

You should decide which features to use and how to implement them correctly. You don't want to use a feature from your phone company that interferes with the phone system.

Here is a quick rundown of some common features and how to integrate them:


If any of your personnel are busy on the phone, their voicemail will take the message. Each phone extension should have its own voice mailbox with its own personal greeting.

It's vital to disable voicemail service from your phone company when you use the voicemail feature with your phone system.

Transferring Calls

If you have personnel at remote locations, you may want to allow callers who dial their extension to be transferred to their cell phones.

A good phone system should be able to handle various types of transfer features that your phone company provides, such as three-way calling or transfer and release, which is a feature known as Centrex.

If you don't have any transfer capability with your phone company, then a decent phone system should still be able to transfer callers to another number by patching the call via two phone lines.

Lastly, Verify Your Phone System Makes a Good First Impression

Finally, when you have your automated system set up, and you completed the programming, call your phone number and listen to your company greeting. Test every option on the menu to be sure everything works as you intended.

You don't want your callers to run into something strange. You can catch it and correct it before your callers find something wrong that irritates them.

Remember, your phone system is the first thing your customers and clients experience when they call you. So make an excellent first impression.

© 2015 Glenn Stok

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