This post was contributed by Kelsey Johnson, Product Marketing Manager at Smith.ai.

From lead generation to qualification to sales and upselling, what you really want at the end of the day is a happy client. In fact, you want clients who are so happy that they tell all their friends and associates about your business — leading to more happy clients.

This ideal path for your clients is called a “customer lifecycle,” which is often broken down into the following steps:

  1. Awareness: A new lead learns you exist through marketing or referrals.
  2. Research: The lead asks questions about your product or service.
  3. Comparison: The lead looks into competitors for differentiators like price, features, and reputation.
  4. Purchase: The lead pays for your product or service, converting to a client.
  5. Retention: The client makes repeat purchases, adds premium features to their subscriptions, and begins to refer new leads to your business.

Whether or not you’ve analyzed or optimized your customer lifecycle, your clients still experience it.

Early responses should be immediate & helpful

“82% of clients agreed that timeliness is important to them when first contacting a lawyer” – The Clio Legal Trends Report

Although every touchpoint in your customer lifecycle is important, the impression you make on first contact is the most crucial. This means picking up the phone — the first time and every time. Leads who have their first call answered are more likely to think highly of your company overall, which leads to faster conversions, upsell or resell opportunities, and brand advocacy.

But for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) with limited budgets, it’s no easy task to respond to every lead and client. How can you answer the phone every time it rings, while running your business and getting “real” work done? The worst thing you can do is lose leads simply because you can’t be in 2 places at once.

Enter virtual receptionists.

What are virtual receptionists?

Virtual receptionists are real people who answer business calls as a service. Trained to address your callers as any member of your staff would, they can take your incoming calls at a much lower cost than hiring a new member of staff.

Virtual receptionists are an excellent first line of response for your business: They can answer calls all the time, or just when you’re busy, already on the phone, and on evenings and weekends when you’re getting some much-needed R&R. Plus, every client can expect to hear a friendly voice at every stage in the customer lifecycle — no more getting sent to voicemail.

But that’s just the beginning. Once your virtual receptionist has a client on the phone, they answer questions about your business and prices, screen and qualify new leads, transfer calls, schedule appointments, and take payments — helping your client with exactly what they need at the moment they need it.

And, although they may be backed by technology, virtual receptionists are real people — they’re patient, understanding, and smart enough to estimate when a client’s issue may need to be escalated.

How virtual receptionists fit in the customer lifecycles of SMBs

Clients move through the cycle of a small law firm completely differently than a medium-sized marketing company. But, as you’ll see in the following two examples, virtual receptionists can add value in both cases — and many more.

Example: Small law firm

Let’s take a look at how virtual receptionists help in each stage of the customer lifecycle for an example small law firm which we’ll call “Miller Family Law”:

  1. Awareness: Sally has decided to initiate a divorce with her husband, and needs to hire a family law firm. She searches for “divorce lawyer” on Google, finds Miller Family Law, and calls immediately. This is the first and most important opportunity for Miller Family Law to make a good impression. Sally feels like she has taken the first step, and the firm has secured a strong lead.
  2. Research: Sally has questions. The virtual receptionist tells her whether they will take her case, when she can set up a meeting, where the firm is located, and the cost of her initial consultation (but does not offer legal advice).
  3. Comparison: Because she had her call answered and her core issues addressed, Sally is unlikely to shop around for competing law firms. But she might. If she does, she’ll be equipped with all the information she needs to compare Miller Law Firm with other family lawyers in her area.
  4. Purchase: Sally has decided on a consultation. Our virtual receptionist can book the consultation on the lawyer’s calendar and run a payment for the consultation fee. While she’s on the phone, the receptionist can click a button to have intake forms or follow-up information emailed or texted directly to Sally.
  5. Retention: As Sally goes through the divorce process with Miller Law Firm, she may call in for status updates or to offer additional information. Each time, she knows a receptionist will pick up the call and can help her book a meeting with her lawyer.

Here’s the kicker: Sally booked and paid for a consultation without the phone ever ringing at Miller Law Firm. The lawyers and paralegals were able to focus on billable work without the distraction of a phone call. The overall productivity and revenue potential of the firm was unaffected, yet new business was still coming in. Plus, fewer interruptions can lead to less stressed, happier staff overall.

Example: Medium-sized marketing agency

Now, let’s take a look at how virtual receptionists might fit into the customer lifecycle of an example marketing firm called “Websites Plus Marketing”:

  1. Awareness: Carlos, the owner of a kitchen supplies store, decided to ramp up his marketing in the new year. He hears about Websites Plus Marketing from a friend and calls the number on the business card he was given. Websites Plus Marketing has an in-house receptionist, but he was already on the phone with another client. So a virtual receptionist answers instead, welcoming Carlos to the company with a friendly voice. Since Carlos wasn’t sent to voicemail, he feels that this company is likely to respect his time and needs.
  2. Research: Carlos doesn’t know a lot about the services and prices of Websites Plus Marketing. The virtual receptionist can answer many of his questions and offer resources with more information. He decides he wants to talk directly to Websites Plus Marketing’s sales rep instead, and the virtual receptionist transfers him directly (after checking to make sure she is available).
  3. Comparison: While looking into other marketing options, Carlos remembers his first experience with Websites Plus Marketing, which was positive, helpful, and comforting.
  4. Purchase: When Carlos calls back in after his comparative research, the in-house receptionist is out of the office — picking up his kids from school. The virtual receptionist again answers the call and immediately transfers Carlos to the sales representative who will make the sale.
  5. Retention: Throughout his experience as a client of Websites Plus Marketing, Carlos knows that his call will always be answered, and he’ll be transferred to the appropriate number. Like his friend before him, he becomes an advocate of the company.

In this case, virtual receptionists helped the company’s current in-house receptionist. One person will never be able to answer every call — they are only human. Virtual receptionists can catch the extra calls when your in-house employee is already on the phone, at lunch, or on their day off — and your business keeps its excellent reputation.

Sync your virtual receptionist service with your CRM and marketing automation software for a seamless customer lifecycle

You can take it to the next level by integrating your virtual receptionist call notes into your CRM and marketing automation software. For example, Smith.ai integrates with ActiveCampaign, which means all new lead and current client info is automatically logged in one place — your CRM. Furthermore, you can set up automated lead-nurturing follow-ups with callers.

For example, Websites Plus Marketing could set up an automation in ActiveCampaign to send any new leads (like Carlos) 3 or 4 emails in the week following the initial call. The emails, which would go out every couple of days, might contain client success stories, website design options, or value props. New leads will have more information during the research and comparison stages, which can help increase conversion rates.

And since all of Carlos’s interactions and contact info is logged in the CRM, the sales rep can lead a conversation with all the necessary context — and make the sale!

Conclusion: How to create a virtual receptionist process that works for you and your clients

Every customer lifecycle is different. It’s important to give your virtual receptionists the right information to create the best possible experience for every one of your clients. Get started by following these steps:

  1. Identify what your clients are looking for in each stage of the customer lifecycle.
  2. Give your virtual receptionists 1 or 2 strategic questions that will help them identify which stage the caller is in. For example, the receptionist could determine that your caller is in the awareness stage by asking “Is this your first time contacting the company?”
  3. Decide how the receptionists should handle the lead based on their stage. You might want purchase-ready leads to be transferred directly or assisted in setup, but maybe the receptionist simply collects contact information for awareness leads.
  4. Write loose scripts so receptionists can qualify new leads, properly direct calls, and always ask the right questions at the right time.

Kelsey Johnson is the Product Marketing Manager at Smith.ai and a legal tech expert focused on helping small and medium-sized businesses with their practices through tech-enabled operations, integrated systems, digital marketing, and communications.