Business Telephone Etiquette: Screening Calls


Screening calls efficiently without offending callers is a delicate task. With practice, you will be able to get the information you need and determine whether a call should be put through based on information you gather from the caller. This article looks at some ways to screen calls professionally and politely.
Screening Calls: The Second Necessary Evil

You should not screen your calls unless absolutely necessary and neither should your co-workers or supervisors. Making a habit of avoiding incoming phone calls sends a message that you do not value your customers and cannot be bothered with them. However, some individuals need to set aside time occasionally for time-sensitive projects or closed-door meetings. In this instance, you may need to screen calls for them so that they are not interrupted except for the most urgent or pertinent calls. Screening calls with finesse is a skill you will perfect with practice.

It is extremely important that you know which people should be put through when you are screening calls. Repeatedly having to put customers on hold while you check to see if the person requested wants to talk to them defeats the purpose of screening because you are interrupting your co-worker constantly. Putting someone on hold while you check is also extremely impolite; the person on the other end probably suspects what you are doing, and if you return to the call and say you cannot put them through, they will feel slighted.

If you talk to the person whose calls you are screening and get a list of callers or types of calls to put through, you will be able to stop any other calls more efficiently and disturb your colleague less often. You might be told to hold all calls except for your co-worker's husband, any vendor from Acme Company, or anyone working with her on the current project. Write each of these down and keep it next to the phone for quick reference.

The Opening

How do you know whether a call makes the "list?" You can inquire with just a few quick questions and find out everything you need to know. Make sure you ask first before you let callers know whether the party they are trying to reach is in.

If you are screening calls for Bill Saunders and someone calls and asks to speak to him, the conversation should go something like this:

Caller: May I speak with Bill Saunders, please?

You: May I ask what this is regarding, Ms. Jones?

(An alternative you can use is "Will he know what this is regarding?")

Caller: Sure. I talked to him last week about a job in Cincinnati and wanted to follow up with him.

You: I'm so sorry, but Mr. Saunders isn't available right now. Could I take a message and have him return your call?

A few things to notice about the above exchange; you should already have gotten the caller's name at the beginning of the phone call (Ms. Jones, in this case). If you do not at the outset, be sure you do when the conversation continues, as you take the message. Let us continue the conversation:

Caller: Yes, have him contact me on my cell phone.

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You: Could I have that number, please?

Caller: He has my number.

You: Would you mind giving it to me again, just in case he wants to call you back and he doesn't have your file with him when he returns your call? I do want to make sure he can reach you.

Notice the diplomatic way in which the caller was coaxed to give out her phone number again. Reassuring callers that you are working in their best interest when you ask them to give you information almost always disarms them.

Always take a detailed message, including the date and time, and make sure the person receives the message as soon as they notify you that you no longer need to screen their calls.

A few things to keep in mind when screening calls:

  • Salespeople are becoming more adept at faking their way through to the person they want to reach. If a caller will not say what the call is about or give you his or her name, say that the person requested is unavailable and the request needs to be in writing. This usually weeds out anyone who is just trying to get through for personal reasons. If people really want your business, they will send something in writing.
  • Never volunteer information. The less information you give when screening calls, the better. Simply say, "She is unavailable" or "He is not available." Do not tell callers the person requested is in a meeting or at lunch. At best, they will want you to interrupt the meeting; at worst, they won't believe you.
  • Always ask what the call is about before you answer a request to be put through. Nothing looks worse than putting someone on hold, and then coming back and saying, "He's unavailable." It makes it obvious you are screening calls.
  • Don't believe everyone who calls and says, "I'm his brother/best friend/mother-in-law." Also find out which relatives, friends, and associates should always be put through and which ones should be asked to call back.
  • Whenever possible, let callers know when you expect the individual in question to be available. You can say, "…I expect Ms. Edison to be available by three o'clock. Could she return your call after that?" or "I'm sorry, but David won't be able to return your call until tomorrow. Is there someone else who can help you in the meantime?"
  • If a caller will not give his or her name, explain politely that you are not permitted to put anyone through without one.
Keep in mind that, although you have been asked to screen calls for a co-worker, your first priority is the customer on the other end of the line. If the caller seems particularly upset or is not satisfied with leaving a message, take some extra time to help. The caller may not technically be your customer or your responsibility, but putting some extra time into helping someone on your co-worker's behalf is excellent for customer relations. If you can, direct them to another person who can help or suggest a temporary solution.
Selling on the Telephone

You may think that, as a customer service representative, you are not part of the sales team, but nothing could be further from the truth. A good customer service person not only solves problems or takes orders, he or she adds additional sales when a problem is resolved or an order is placed. In this section, we will discuss ways you can promote sales whenever you are on a customer service telephone call.

Sales Are Everyone's Business
Do not assume that a customer calling to place an order is finished purchasing. You can often improve on a potential order with the proper approach. In fact, even a customer service call that starts as a complaint can be turned into a new sale with the right technique. You will become a company hero if you can learn how to turn the least likely prospect into an unexpected sale!
Keep in mind that every call you handle is, in its own way, a sales call. You are selling your ability to find a solution to a caller's problem. When you win them over to your proposed solution or an acceptable compromise, you have essentially sold yourself and your solution.
Knowing the Product or Service

The best weapon in your sales arsenal is your understanding of the product line or service your company provides. Do not just get to know the products or services that you handle on a regular basis. If your company sells a variety of baby items and you handle all of the stroller complaints, do not limit your knowledge to strollers. Take the time to know what the company offers in the way of high chairs, changing tables, and other products that customers may be interested in. Keep a complete catalog next to your phone for quick reference.

Be able to cross-reference products for up-selling (suggesting a more expensive, better version of a product) and cross-selling (suggesting add-ons to go with the item ordered). For example, if a customer orders a high chair, it helps to know that there is a padded seat cushion and safety strap available to fit that particular style.
Paving the Way

Never suggest another purchase when customers are upset or angry. Let them vent first, then resolve their current problem if there is one. As you attempt to address their situation, be sure you use positive or neutral words rather than negative ones in order to give the customer the feeling that things are going their way. Take a look at the following sentences, and decide which one you would rather hear:

"I'm sorry, but the earliest we could take care of that is Thursday, Miss Peterson."

"We can have that taken care of for you by Thursday, Miss Peterson."

Doesn't the second sentence sound better? It is the same information, but it sounds more positive when you phrase it as a good outcome, not an apology.

For the same reason, do not use phrases like "can't" or "you'll have to." Customers do not want to be told no and they do not want to be forced to do anything. Make suggestions instead of giving orders. Demanding words put callers on the defensive, and customers are less likely to purchase anything when feeling defensive.

"Perhaps you'd like me to connect you with our billing department to see how they can help you?"

"You'll have to talk to someone in billing."

In the above example, the first response sounds so much better!

Once you have resolved the customer's problem, you can focus on how you would like to steer your conversation toward a sale.

Making the Sale

Whether a customer has been talking with you to resolve a problem or place an order, you will (in most cases) reach a point when the customer is satisfied. At this point, take a straightforward approach and suggest a sale.

You could say, "While I have you on the line, have you heard about our 20 percent sale on porch furniture?" or "What else would you like to order for your grandson's bar mitzvah?"

Ask your questions in a positive way, as though you are assuming they are interested. Avoid asking "do you want to….(…hear our specials, order something else…) It makes it too easy for the caller to say, "No."

Be enthusiastic! This is the only time during a customer service call when it is okay to say "need to," "must," or other phrases that are aggressive. When you use these words to express how perfect an item is, it creates an emotional "I want it" type of response. Here are a few examples:

"You have to try our new lawn care plan, Mr. Clemente. Your lawn will be the greenest on your street!"

"You really need to try the deluxe model – it's got the kind of power you're looking for to cut your work time in half."

If the customer you are talking to has indicated anything about his or her personal life, use this to suggest add-ons or up-sells that will make the person's life easier. Selling is about the benefits for the customer; in fact, stressing benefits results in far more sales than focusing on a low price.

"Emma, I've placed that order for your daughter's new slacks. You'll have them in plenty of time for her birthday. Our green silk blouse would look wonderful with them, would you like to add it to this order?"

"Mr. Reed, did you know we're running a special this week on ink cartridges that fit the printer you ordered recently? You will save 20 percent over the regular price! You can't pass up a savings like that on something you'll be needing soon!"

Finally, consider using your experiences to illustrate how good a product is, but only if you can honestly do so. If you are genuinely sold on the services or products your company provides, feel free to brag about them; customers can sense sincerity and will appreciate your sharing with them.

Close your call on a positive note whether the customer placed an additional order or not. Thank the person for the call and assure her or him that you always look forward to providing assistance. Remind customers to call again, and then say, "good-bye," with a smile in your voice. You may hear from them again with an even better order in the future!