BBB: Moving forward means keeping up with technology

SUNDAY, NOV. 27, 2011

The phone books get delivered outside our condo building each year. One of the residents hauls them into the common area for each owner to take into their home. Those same books get delivered to the BBB office, one for each of the 25-plus telephones we have. Quite the pile of books in both locations.

At home, the majority of books go directly from the entryway to the recycle tubs. At work, they sit in a corner until someone gets tired of looking at them. Almost all of those, too, end up in the recycle bin.

But last week I was sitting in the passenger seat of a rental car in Washington, D.C., wishing I had a phone book … to sit on! Passenger seats that do not adjust up and down make it really hard for us short people to see over the dashboard.

So I guess there are still uses for the directories. But I am beginning to wonder just how many people actually use traditional phone books anymore. In looking at the BBB’s 2012 budget, we are spending thousands of dollars on listings in Central Washington, Montana and North Idaho so people can find the number for our BBB office here in Spokane, which serves their areas.

Years ago we helped people select good businesses or resolve complaints via phone calls. Now, 98 percent of our services are delivered over the Internet. What do you do when you need a phone number? Google or Yellow Page it? Or call 411 and ask them? 

I am aware that the directory industry employs all sorts of people, and we are talking about jobs. But we are also talking about relevance.

Younger staff in my office think we need to drop all these directory listings. They really see no use for a phone book and think the money could be better spent. I have to admit, they did persuade me to drop our 800 numbers in this age of free long-distance with cell phones, and that went off without a whimper from anyone. So maybe they are right on this issue, too. But I am still on the fence. 

I asked my intake folks to ask callers where they found our number, and 411 is leading this survey so far, with the phone book a close second. But if it were not in the book, could they still find it without us spending all that money?

Business is changing so fast these days. We are constantly evaluating where we need to focus our resources. If we blog about a topic and it catches fire, we reach 50,000 people – much more effective than one phone conversation. If we post a scam alert on our Facebook page and it gets shared by hundreds of people exponentially, we have reached hundreds of thousands. So is that where our attention should be? But when my 85-year-old dad needs help figuring out if he should make that donation or move his health insurance, we must also be ready to take his phone call and help him make that decision.

In the past if an interesting scam story aired on KHQ at 6 p.m., we could track the jump in referrals to our website from the TV station. I could see our Web hits peak on Sundays when The Spokesman-Review ran such a column. But now everything is so diluted with multiple choices of where to get information that those of us in business find it increasingly difficult to figure out who we are reaching where, and how often.

So where should businesses focus our resources as we plan for 2012 and beyond? Does current consumer engagement require a shotgun approach? If that is the case, how will we measure success? Do we abandon the shrinking phone book users, many of whom are elderly or low-income, and put resources into social media? How do we reach our potential and current customers? We will keep trying new things, evaluating and measuring and changing, just like everyone else.

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