RISC World

Tech Support - the answerphone mystery

Aaron investigates...

Today I want to talk to you about answerphones. As I am sure you are aware the answerphone is a great gadget that allows people to leave messages when no one is available to answer the phone. In an ideal world an answerphone wouldn't be necessary as there would always be someone available to answer the phone. Unfortunately I run a business which means that I have to spend some time each day out of the office. I could be going to the bank, going to the post office, fixing a customer's machine on site or doing quite a few work related activities that mean I can't be in the office. I could try diverting calls to a mobile, but if it's a call from someone wanting an unlock code it's not much help. Talking to them whilst I am 20 miles from the office is pointless, as the database will therefore be 20 miles away, so we have an answerphone.

It's a dead easy system to use, instead of a human answering the phone a machine does it, plays a brief pre-recorded message and allows the person making the call to leave a short message, normally with their phone number and a few details. Once I come back in the office I can write down the messages on the machine and call people back, what could possibly go wrong? Well let's find out....


This is a reasonably common occurrence. I go out for a few minutes, come back and they message light is flashing. On playing the message back I get a click of the receiver being hung up followed by a brrr. Now I quite understand that some people don't like answerphones, that's fine, but with our answerphone if you hang up before the outgoing message has finished the machine just stops and doesn't record anything. If there is a click this means that someone has listened to the message all the way through, paused for a second, then in the moment of crisis been unable to get their speaking apparatus into gear and put the phone down. This guaranties the call won't get returned as no contact details have been left.

As an extra treat sometimes the caller leaves a huff before the click and the brrr, which is nice.

Office hours

Our outgoing answerphone message tells callers what times we are open, typically between 10 and 4. Of course we can't always be here. Very occasionally, perhaps once every six to eight months we get a short message along the lines of "Well I am calling in office hours" followed by the phone being put down. This at least is a step forward from the click brrr caller as a message has been left. Of course the message doesn't contain any contact details. So even if I come back into the office two minutes later I still can't return the call as I don't know who rang.


An unusual problem, but one that does occur from time to time. The customer speaks so quickly that it's impossible to work out what they are saying and also impossible to work out what the phone number they have left is. Despite listening to the message many times over it's still not possible to work out what number has been left. Very occasionally the customer starts slowly and accelerates as they approach the phone number. "Ah, breath)...ohonefourtwoninefourfiveseven...". Again if we can't understand the message we can't return the call.

A short message

Most answerphones only record a short message, typically 1 minute. If a customer talks for over a minute then they will hear a beep and the machine will stop recording. One of the most annoying messages we get is a long waffle followed by "my phone number is 01...(beep)". This is why we ask people to leave their name, phone number and a short message. If the customer leaves their name and then a long message it's quite unlikely that there will be time for them to leave their phone number, and as we know, no phone number, no call back.

And now my personal favourites...

The wrong phone number

I have had two of these in the last couple of months. In the first instance a customer rang from Germany and left their phone number. The message was clear and concise and easy to understand (the person in question wanted to make a couple of enquiries and then possibly place an order). So I rang back, and this is where it went wrong, the person who answered the phone had never heard of the person who left the message. I tried 4 times, at different hours of the day, but no, nobody had ever heard of the person in question. In the old days before the data protection act I could have rung up a few other dealers to see if anyone recognised the name and had an e-mail address or a postal address. I can still ask, but other dealers can't tell me. So, the customer didn't get a return call.

Sometimes we get customers who aren't sure what their phone number is and leave a non existent number. Again if the number's unknown they aren't going to get a return phone call.

The switched off mobile

This has only happened very recently, and only once in as long as I can remember. The customer rung up and left a short message with a mobile phone number. That was on Monday this week, today is Friday, I have called the mobile twice a day for the last four days, and every time it's switched off, with no option to leave a message. What on earth is the point? If you need to be called back, why leave a number you can't be called back on?

Doing it properly

As a conclusion I would like to say that the vast majority (95 percent or more) of our customers have no problem at all with the answerphone, they leave a concise message, I call them back. Job done. They are happy and I am happy. So please remember if you do encounter an answerphone just follow these rules:

  • Speak clearly.
  • Leave your name first.
  • Leave your phone number second, speaking slowly and repeat the number.
  • If you are only available for certain times of the day say when.
  • Now explain the nature of your call e.g. "Could you please cal me back as I need some tech support".
  • Hang up.

If you leave messages this way then you are guaranteed to be called back. Well at least you will be called back by me, I can't speak for other companies. If on the other hand you use an answerphone like some of those featured earlier in this article don't be at all surprised if you never get a call back, after all if you can't leave your details, someone can't call you back.

And finally if you don't get called back within 24 hours, why not try ringing again?