"If you know your party's extension, press one. If the third letter of your identification code is 'M' press two."

Who hasn't fought with one of those annoying "voice trees" that are just another way for some businesses to remove themselves from actually talking to customers?

Part of my practice is business consulting. If a business wants a corporation or an LLC, we can do that. We'll help them protect their personal lives from business liabilities and recommend ways to stay on the straight and narrow with the tax man.

Business plans are an absolute must. I'll give as little or as much advice as people want. Hopefully, there are plans for financing, growth, marketing and all the rest.

I called a guy I consult with several years ago and got a "voice tree." This fellow employs himself and barely two employees. Yet, incredibly, I had to sit and wait and punch the keypad repeatedly until I found out that to reach him I now had to hit extension 15.

"It takes an act of God to reach a human being on the phone," quipped the president of the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys, Marsha V. Kazarosian, Esq., in her organization's MATA Journal.

Even a marketing expert who credits technology with making his business successful nationwide, author Mark Merenda, says "I urge my clients not to use technology to the detriment of human contact and customer service."

Then there is a local outlet for a national chain. I walked in one day and there were seven employees, all with their backs to the customer area. Chatting, laughing, and yes, finally coming over to ask how they could "help" me. Not surprisingly, they charged me three times what I later paid for the same item the next time at a competitor down the street.

Merenda points out that the attitude toward customers comes from the top.

"If you give everyone in your office the impression that the clients are a pain in the butt," he points out, "and that your main goal in life is not to be bothered, I can guarantee you that every member of your staff will reflect this attitude."

Then there's the guy who you call and ask a question and he tells you to go on his national company's Web site. Nice guy. But, at the national Web site, click, click, oops, start over again. An office several miles down the road provides virtually the identical service.

When you call there, the owner or one of her assistants talk to you. They ask some simple questions while they click and scroll through the corporate Web site and obtain the result you need.

It's common sense. But part of a business plan is to build a satisfied customer base to support growth of a successful enterprise.

Few industries are actually legally required to be fast and efficient. New Hampshire regulations require utilities and insurers to provide reasonably prompt answers. Insurance companies are required in New Hampshire to respond to certain correspondence within 10 days, and to update "claimants" every 30 days as to the status of their claims.

However, for the most part, the free enterprise system allows businesses to communicate with customers as they wish. Businesses failing in the job face loss of customers.

As for attorneys, in New Hampshire we must take at least 12 hours of "Continuing Legal Education" each year. At nearly every CLE seminar, they implore us to return phone calls. We are, by regulation, required to communicate "promptly" with our clients.

Anyhow, back to the guy at extension 15. That was a few years ago. The last time I visited his office he was down to just one part-time employee. He complains that there isn't a lot of new business.

Business Planning 101: have a financial plan, set up the appropriate entity, whether it's a corporation, LLC or "other." Insure yourself adequately. Know who your customers are and develop a marketing plan.

But, whatever you do, talk to your customers. Your clients. Whatever you call them, they pay for the food on your table and that new car you want.

Andrew Myers of Derry has law offices in Derry and North Andover, Mass. He is a member of the American Association for Justice and the New Hampshire Trial Lawyers Association. Send questions to andrew@attorney-myers.com.

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