The Future of the Business Phone

Most US households ditched their landlines years ago. Less than 40 percent still have them. The way people use phones has changed, and so have their expectations for what a phone is capable of. 

But businesses still have a lot of catching up to do.

Many businesses still depend on landlines to field inbound calls. An employee answers the phone to take orders, schedule appointments, answer questions, and provide information that may or may not be accessible elsewhere. Particularly for Main Street businesses, a phone is still the communication channel they depend on the most. 

Local businesses have trained consumers to call to get what they need—even though it’s not how most people prefer to communicate. Phone calls create pain points for businesses and customers alike.

In the years to come, how Main Street businesses use and think about their phones will evolve. Much of that evolution is already happening—Numa is part of it. But phone technology still has a ways to go, and businesses have yet to widely adopt many of the most helpful phone solutions available to them.

As businesses tap into their phones’ potential and tech trends continue, here’s what you can expect to see in the future of the phone.

Business phones will be communication platforms

Consumer behavior suggests people expect business phones to do more than just take calls. According to AT&T, “150 million texts are sent to landline numbers every day, even though many of those lines are not text-enabled.” About one in every three consumers has texted a business and never received a reply

In 2015, just 14 percent of businesses used text messaging to communicate with consumers. That’s changing rapidly. A 2020 survey found that 68 percent of businesses claimed to text message their customers in some capacity.

As businesses embrace and enhance more of their phones’ capabilities, they’ll start to see their phone lines more like consumers do: as a communication platform, with a variety of channels they can use.

Some businesses are already using apps like Numa to connect employees’ personal phones to the company’s business number, so when an employee is on the clock, they can reply to messages that require their expertise from the office, the store, the warehouse, wherever. 

To the customer, it looks like one continuous conversation with a single contact—the business. There’s no waiting on hold or being redirected to someone else. But on the business side, that conversation can be directed to whoever needs to weigh in.

The transition away from voice communication is already happening. And as it progresses, we’ll see receptionists change, too.

Receptionists will evolve

Throughout the day, a receptionist may have to answer dozens of phone calls from customers, call clients to confirm or reschedule appointments, and call employees out in the field to get information or quotes, all while assisting in-person customers.

But whether they’re answering inbound communications or making outbound calls, the system needs to change.

The problem with phone calls

Americans answer less than half of the calls they receive. More than 60 percent of people don’t even listen to voicemails. And when the voicemail comes from a number they don’t recognize, more than 80 percent of people don’t listen to it. The response rate for voicemails is abysmal. 

A receptionist may have to call the same person multiple times before they pick up, or else leave a voicemail knowing that their message will likely go unheard and unanswered. Those appointments won’t be confirmed or rescheduled. And it could be hours before someone calls back, if they do at all. And if they do call back, the receptionist may already be on the phone helping someone else.

The power of a platform

Alternatively, text messaging can have open rates as high as 98 percent and response rates as high as 45 percent. So if a receptionist has the capability to send texts from their computer, they’re going to be far more successful relaying the information and getting the responses they need. 

And they’re going to do it in significantly less time. Texting is far more scalable than voice. Turning a business phone into a communication platform effectively gives your receptionist super powers. There’s no waiting for someone to pick up. No back and forth conversation. No waiting for someone to return your call.

Instead, they can send a simple text: “The dentist is out sick today, so we need to reschedule your appointment. You can choose a new appointment time at this link.”

Will we still need receptionists?

Virtual receptionists and call answering services will continue to take on more of the inbound communications that don’t require human attention, but receptionists will still play a valuable role for businesses that send a lot of outbound communications. And as solutions like Numa relieve the burden of inbound communications, some businesses may find that they finally have the capacity to invest in outbound messaging.

Of course, there are also some industries where customers desire connection more than convenience. If someone is paying a premium for say, legal services, they may want the personal touch of speaking to someone, or they may not feel comfortable texting about what they need.

But there will also be a lot of industries where, once the voice element is removed from the equation, the role of receptionist will move overseas. The normalization of text-based phone communication will inevitably lead to outsourcing. Since consumers will never hear the receptionist’s voice, they’re not going to know or care if they’re talking to someone across the street or across the globe.

Texting will be the default way we communicate with businesses

Right now, when you Google most local businesses, you see some basic information like the address, hours and services, links to a website, and a phone number. But some businesses are already showing up with the option to start a text conversation.

Right from the search results, you can send a text message to the business you’re trying to reach. Today, this is an exception. In the near future, it’ll likely be an expectation. Consumers already prefer texting. They already try to text landlines. And texting is far more convenient for both the customer and the business.

Having a conversation requires a large cognitive load. You have to access social instincts and protocols. You have to pay attention to cues in someone’s tone, recognize the meaning of a pause—is it my turn to talk, or do you have more to say?—and process what someone is saying in real time. All while trying to be polite and get your quick question answered.

In terms of the amount of energy someone has to use to have a conversation, it’s an order of magnitude larger than what it takes to have a text-based digital interaction. 

Texting is a much simpler pathway for transactional communication with businesses. And in the future, it’ll be the norm.

Voicemail will be irrelevant

The concept of voicemail is antiquated and inefficient—but there's room for innovation. Some businesses are already using technology to drive missed calls toward other channels. 

When someone calls a business and the employees are busy or it’s after hours, Numa steps in and asks customers if they’d like to start a conversation via text instead. If they opt in, Numa texts them from the business phone number and uses conversational AI to get them the information they need or help them complete basic actions.

If someone still wants to go through with a voicemail, that doesn’t mean businesses have to tediously listen to it, call back, and hope someone picks up. Instead, businesses can use voicemail transcription services. With Numa, every voicemail gets transcribed and turned into a text message, so it’s effortless to read and reply.

Experts have been predicting the extinction of voicemail for years. But while it’s certainly on the decline, technology that circumvents voicemail is on the rise, and the way businesses handle it is changing. As consumers grow used to the idea that they can communicate with businesses through other channels, voicemail will become a technological relic.

It will be easier to direct calls to the right people

Right now, when a customer needs to communicate with an expert, they have to call the business and wait on hold for that expert to become available. Depending on what they’re doing and where they are, it can take a while for the expert to answer. 

But when a business’ phone line becomes a communication platform, it looks more like this:

Someone texts their local hardware store to ask if a particular sawzall blade will work for the project they’re working on. Or if tile snips will work on the tile they’ve selected for their bathroom remodel. Their message appears in an app the store employees can see, and an administrator can ping the person running the tool department, or the tile and flooring specialist. Nobody has to wait on hold, and the product expert can finish their task before responding in the app using their personal phone.

Or maybe someone’s calling a hair salon, and they want their hair cut in a specific style, or they have particular needs. Your receptionist can see the message and book an appointment with the stylist who has the most experience working with toddlers, or whatever the case may be.

Imagine a more complicated case: someone texts a mechanic a picture of their car along with the make and model. They may use an automated system or a real person to reply with an estimate. “That’ll cost 500 bucks to fix that bumper. Here’s a link to our schedule so you can pick a time to bring it in.”

When your business phone is a communication platform, it streamlines the process of connecting customers to the expertise they need.

And as artificial intelligence becomes a more common component of that platform, that expertise becomes more available within your business.

Specialized knowledge will be more accessible

In just about any business, there’s a lot of knowledge that winds up only being stored in someone’s head. They’re the only one who can answer complex questions about how things work, what’s best, and what needs to happen.

Many businesses already use chatbots and conversational AI to handle repetitive tasks and communications. Some of these artificial intelligence solutions (like Numa) can also use machine learning to save and reuse your responses to less common queries.

So whenever your chatbot doesn’t know how to answer a question, it surfaces that question in the app, where you can ping whoever needs to respond to it. And like your best new employee, Numa pays attention to their response and asks you if it should remember it for later. The next time that question comes up, Numa suggests the answer to your employees, and you can decide if you want the chatbot to use it for the same question in the future.

Basically, businesses using conversational AI will be able to build a database of highly specialized knowledge over time. The more they use the conversational AI, the more time it saves employees, so the more they can help in-person customers.

Instead of storing all your expertise in a few people’s heads, you can make it accessible to all your employees, and future customers can access that knowledge immediately.

Consumers will save more businesses as contacts

As it becomes more normal to have text-based interactions with businesses, more people will save businesses as contacts. 

Consumers are going to see more conversations with businesses in their text messaging app, and it’s a lot easier to navigate conversations when there are names attached to those phone numbers.

For businesses, this means outbound communication to previous customers will be even more likely to get a response. Your customers will see a number they recognize—one they’ve saved—instead of a message from a number they’re not sure they can trust.

It’s time for business phones to catch up

The future of the phone is a better experience for consumers—one where they communicate with businesses the way they communicate with anyone else. And it’s a better experience for businesses—one where they can help more people more efficiently. 

As technology advances and businesses adopt new phone solutions, even small, local companies will become less reliant on voice conversations and more available to their customers.

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