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In the digital world, it can be easy to forget the importance of human interaction.

Jill Nelson, CEO of Ruby Receptionists, and John Oppenheimer, CEO of Columbia Hospitality, believe that even a simple phone call can make a difference.

Speaking at a Rotary Club of Seattle luncheon on May 23 with GeekWire’s Todd Bishop, the two entrepreneurs, alongside Adaptive Biotechnologies CEO Chad Robins, discussed lessons they learned while taking part in EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year awards, entrepreneurship in the Pacific Northwest, and challenges they have overcome as business leaders.

But one theme focused on the simple act of picking up the phone.

That’s the crux of Portland-based Ruby Receptionists, which Nelson started in 2003 and has since grown to 470 employees to service more than 7,000 small businesses with live receptionists.

“We have a stated mission, and it is to keep alive those meaningful personal connections, those human connections that are increasingly lost in today’s technology-focused virtual world and every day I’m just reminded of how important that is,” Nelson said.

Adaptive Biotechnologies CEO Chad Robins, Ruby Receptionists CEO Jill Nelson and Columbia Hospitality CEO John Oppenheimer at the Seattle Rotary with GeekWire’s Todd Bishop

She added: “There are things that our receptionists do that at some point, absolutely, computers will be able to do them. They can schedule appointments, they can give information, but nothing builds trust and makes people feel heard like real humans that actually listen and want to help.”

As a business, Oppenheimer’s Columbia Hospitality isn’t build around the phone call in the way that Ruby Receptionists is, but he said having conversations is still important for him.

In the first version of his book Keys to the Room: Unlocking the Doors to Opportunities and Possibilities, Oppenheimer says that if he doesn’t pick up the phone on the third ring, his goal is to call back within five minutes. (The second version of the book, according to Oppenheimer, gives him a little more leeway on callback time.)

But the idea of returning calls as soon as possible is still important to him. “People still want to talk to people, and when we get a call or an email or a letter and things aren’t perfect, which hopefully doesn’t happen very often but it does happen, I pick up the phone and call them as fast as I can and it’s amazing the reaction that it gets,” he said.

Watch the entire panel discussion above. This year’s EY Entrepreneur of the Year Awards for the Pacific Northwest will be announced on June 15 in Seattle.

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