It has become commonplace: a busy CEO installs an automated phone-answering system, figuring it will save lots of time and money.

"At first clients said it was terrific that we were in the 21st century," says Ed Winguth, owner of Winguth, Donahue & Co., a $1-million executive-search firm in Los Altos, Calif. In 1989 a $16,000 investment in new phones and proprietary voice-mail software made perfect sense. After all, Winguth's employees were in constant phone contact with a dozen or so corporate clients, while prospecting for hundreds of executive candidates. Surely routing all calls through one receptionist was less efficient than answering calls with an electronic menu.

"But soon customers started saying it was too cold and annoying," recalls Winguth. The system forced callers to sit through three levels of menus before reaching a human voice. "These were CEOs and VPs calling in," he says. "Our repeat customers really got annoyed."

Winguth finally scrapped the system after two years, suffering $4,000 in repairs and six days of downtime -- and the loss of, he estimates, four prospective clients. His typical customer is worth about $50,000 a year in billings, and untold sums more in referrals and goodwill.

Some would say Winguth simply bought the wrong system, but he realized a larger truth. If clients could complain so heartily about the phones, he could only imagine what else was on their minds. Winguth realized he wasn't following up with repeat clients after making a placement. The experience "really refocused us on staying in touch with customers."

So he invested in more practical technology. A computer tickler file jogs him to call or write several times after a job -- for example, on the anniversary date of a client's signing on.

His new approach proves that a lost customer is an ideal prospect. Winguth recently won back a client from five years back. "They had been happy with us, but because we lost touch they'd gone to another firm," he says. When Winguth called, the client was beginning another search.

As for the switchboard: Winguth brought back the receptionist. Voice mail from his phone company fills in after hours. -- Phaedra Hise

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How May I Help You? by Stephen Broydrick (Irwin, 800-634-3966, 1994, $17.95), is a practical guide to providing personal customer service. Chapter 1 offers sensible advice on structuring voice mail.

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