Customer Service: Using the Telephone in Today's World
What are the unique challenges of providing telephone customer service today? Modern technologies, higher customer expectations, and shorter attention spans all contribute to the problem of satisfying individuals over the phone. This article explores the many problems you may face while you are on the other end of the line from a customer who expects you to have all the answers.
High Expectations

The world of commerce has evolved rapidly in the last several decades, offering individuals a wide range of options for satisfying their need for products and services. However, these increased options have not only made it easier to look for and find what they want but raised their expectations. People have developed shorter attention spans and a greater sense of urgency in response to our newer, faster lifestyles. They are, essentially, used to instant gratification and quick fixes. How can you meet their needs while providing honest, accurate service when you are on the other end of a telephone line?

What Is Top Quality Telephone Customer Service?
There are dozens of facets to good telephone service, but they essentially boil down to three key elements: respect, professionalism, and efficiency. If your telephone clients end their call to you feeling that they have received these three things, the call will end on a positive note.
  • Respect means acknowledging the importance of every phone call. Always address your client in a respectful manner; don't interrupt them, argue with them or belittle their concerns.
  • Professionalism is evident in everything from your tone of voice to your ability to help them. A true professional never makes excuses or gets upset with the client. Defensiveness or aggression has no place in a professional conversation. Instead, convey an appropriate demeanor that shows you are ready and willing to help them, even if that means giving them to another person or offering to research their problem and call them back when you have an answer.
  • Efficiency is the understanding that every call should be short and to the point, but never abrupt. You do not want to rush a customer off the line, but customers do not want to feel like you are wasting their time, either.
Why Do Customers Call?
There are a number of reasons a customer may call your company directly. Depending on their reasons, you may be talking to someone who is relaxed and happy to talk to you or someone already upset and ready for a confrontation. Every time you answer your phone, you should do so with a positive attitude and a smile in your voice so that your client feels appreciated. It has been proven that most people can tell by the sound of your voice whether you are smiling or not when you talk to them!

Here are the most common reasons people call a customer service representative:

  • They prefer talking to a real person rather than using the Internet, whether because they are not comfortable with computer technology or they do not want to put their information on the Web.
  • They have run into a problem with the Internet and need assistance.
  • They want to place a rush order or ask a question about a product or service and cannot find the information elsewhere.
  • They have a complaint and want a quick resolution.
The Limitations of Telephone Communication

There are more than a few limitations to communicating by telephone, despite many people's preference for voice communication. Some people prefer calling instead of using the Internet or mail because they like the immediacy and the opportunity to interact directly, but this doesn't overcome some basic telephone shortcomings:

  • People expect quick results when they call, even if you do not have all of the information needed at your fingertips. You may have to return their call, which can lead to frustration.
  • Phone calls prevent customers from reading facial and other non-verbal cues. You may be surprised to know that over 50 percent of the impact in a typical face-to-face conversation is based on non-verbal cues, such as the eyes, frowns, smiles, hand gestures, and body position.
  • Telephone reception can distort the sound and inflection of your voice, which the person on the other end of the line may misinterpret.
  • Multitasking, such as carrying on the conversation and using your computer, can cause you to sound abrupt or preoccupied.
  • You do not automatically know whether the other person is calling from home, work, or car. Misunderstanding where the caller is and how many distractions exist at his or her end may contribute to your suggesting impractical solutions or inadvertently offending the customer.
  • The person who calls you may not be prepared with what is needed. If customers contact you for information about an order but do not have the account number handy, they may become flustered or frustrated.

Certain problems arise more than others during customer service calls, which typify why so many people hate the thought of calling a customer service center. The most common problem is being put on hold. Nothing is more frustrating than calling a company because you need assistance or want to place an order, only to be placed on hold indefinitely. It gives customers the impression their call is not important (recorded messages saying, "Your call is important to us," not withstanding) and wastes their time.

At certain times of the year, this problem is magnified drastically by increased call volume. At the holidays – Christmas in particular – customer service calls can increase by as much as 200 percent, leading to longer waits unless additional staff is added. While you may not have any control over the availability of staff or how long each person must hold, you can certainly learn ways to defuse tempers and apologize honestly to customers who are already frustrated when you answer the line.

Another customer service area with the potential to create problems is forwarding. Customers are thrilled when you can help them without the need to forward their call to another person. Many people fear being forwarded because they get the impression they are being handed off to be "gotten rid of," so how you explain forwarding can make all the difference in the world to a customer.

With so much potential for problems, is it possible to provide outstanding customer service over the phone? Yes! If you learn the proper techniques of telephone etiquette and service, you can not only satisfy clients but demonstrate that your company is going above and beyond to ensure they are happy, improving your professional reputation and ensuring repeat customers.

Cultivating an Excellent Phone Voice

Providing good customer service over the phone is not just about what you say; it is also about how you say it. Many of us have never heard our own voices and we do not realize how we sound. Things like pronunciation, enunciation, and even the volume of your voice have a huge impact on whether your customers feel valued. This section will give you tips on improving the sound of your voice so that your customers feel appreciated and properly attended to.
How Do You Sound on the Phone?
Have you ever listened to your own voice? Do you like the way you sound? If you have never listened to yourself on the phone, try carrying on a conversation with a friend and use a tape recorder to record your side of the conversation, then listen to it. Most people are shocked by how different their voices sound from what they hear when talking. Yours may sound much lower, softer or harsher than you had imagined. Listen for some key elements that affect how you sound to others:
  • How loud is your voice? Can you hear it clearly?
  • How fast are you talking? Do you rush through your words?
  • Is your voice clear? Can you easily identify every word and make out every sentence?
  • Is there inflection in your voice, or is it monotone and boring?
  • Are you rushing through certain parts of the conversation as though you are irritated or in a hurry?
It is obvious from the questions above that there are many pitfalls to how you sound when speaking on the phone. You should also know that having your voice transmitted over the phone adds distortion to how you sound. Ask your friends how you sound on the other end of the line. There is a split-second delay in transmission when you are on the phone that can lead to garbled sound quality if you rush when speaking. Phone transmission also tends to add a tinny, flat quality to your voice, even on the best fiber-optic lines. You will need to compensate for this and other potential problems, such as volume distortion. How can we correct these problems? By learning how to use every part of our voice and body to contribute to excellent speech habits.
Volume, Speed, and Breathing
The volume of your voice has to be properly modulated. You want customers to be able to hear you without feeling that you are shouting at them. The proper volume is a loud, clear speaking voice without shouting or straining your voice. The best way to achieve proper volume is through proper breathing and modulation.
A soft, breathy voice is difficult to hear and is usually the result of not breathing deeply when speaking. Make sure you are breathing fully, using your diaphragm and fully expanding your lungs. To do this you need to sit up straight and pull enough air into your lungs to expand them deeply. The better your posture, the deeper you tend to breathe. Slouching over your desk hinders deep breathing.

You should practice taking a few deep breaths every hour or so between phone calls in order to train your body to breathe properly and to get lots of oxygen into your system. This not only helps your volume, it keeps you alert so that you don't sound sleepy or bored. To breathe deeper, put your hands up in the air over your head and breathe in until you feel your diaphragm move, or lay down with your hands stretched above your head while you slowly breathe in and out. You'll soon recognize the difference in your breathing when you are really using your lungs.

Deep breathing also influences the speed of your words. Speaking too rapidly conveys impatience and makes it difficult to follow what you are saying, both of which will annoy your customer. Try taking a deep breath of one or two seconds at the end of each sentence or phrase. This allows your listener time to process what you have just said, as well as gives you time to get the oxygen you need to modulate your speech.


Modulating your speech is partly about emphasis or inflection. What words in a sentence do you choose to emphasize when you are talking? Be aware at all times that the person you are talking to cannot see your face, but he or she can hear the inflections in your voice. Read the following sentences, putting added emphasis or inflection on the italicized words:

What would you like me to do to help you?

What would you like me to do to help you?

What would you like me to do to help you?

What would you like me to do to help you?

Do you see how each of the above sentences sounds completely different in meaning depending on the inflection of your voice? The first sentence sounds very defensive, as though you are hoping that you will not be required to do anything personally; it sounds as though you are hoping to "pass the buck" to someone else and disassociate yourself from the problem.

The second sentence seems to ask the customer what he or she would prefer as a solution. You are asking the customer's opinion on possible options, but the question does not sound promising. It is almost snide, as though you believe that what the customer would like and what will take place are two very different things.

The last two, although somewhat different in tone, both ask for suggestions for possible solutions without inferring that there will be a problem. They seem honest and open. It sounds as though you are open to suggestions and would be willing to consider them.

The next time you talk to a client, be aware of the inflection of your voice. It can make or break a conversation.
Enunciation and Pronunciation

Enunciating (saying each syllable of a word clearly and distinctly) and pronouncing words clearly are particularly important when you are speaking with people from various parts of the country or world. Some people have a very strong accent depending upon where they live. If you have a strong Southern accent, for example, people from the North or other countries may find it difficult to understand certain words because your pronunciation is different from theirs or because you "swallow" certain vowel sounds or over-emphasize others.

Practice enunciating words clearly by slowly reading a script or book with the goal of making sure every syllable of each word is distinct and separate. Over time, this over-emphasis will help you develop clearly cut, sharply distinct sounds for each part of the words you say. Keep in mind that habits such as dropped vowels are exaggerated on the phone, adding to the difficulty for the listener.

Interestingly, most people tend to talk more quickly on the phone, possibly because they do not have to take the time to read visual clues in a conversation or because they are not as comfortable talking to someone they cannot see. However, when you are talking on the phone, it is even more important to speak slowly and distinctly because the other person cannot read visual clues or facial expressions. Your entire message is being conveyed verbally, and slow, clear speech ensures that the message is conveyed accurately.

If you have large or unfamiliar words to say, pronounce them slowly and clearly for the benefit of your listener. The faster you say them, the more difficult it is for a customer to distinguish individual words or phrases.
Smile When You Say That!
Believe it or not, most people can tell whether you are smiling when you are on the phone. Go ahead and try it: The next time you are on the phone, focus on whether the person on the other end is smiling. You will be surprised by how often you can tell.

Smiling opens your mouth wider, making your speech sound more clear and warm. The more you smile while talking to a customer, the more receptive they will be and the more comfortable they will feel talking to you. Smiling also allows you to breathe more deeply, which we already know aids in the clarity of your speech.

By the same token, most people can "hear" you frowning or scowling in frustration; be aware of how your face looks at all times when on the phone. Until you can train yourself to have a positive expression when on the phone, you might consider putting a small mirror on your desk to remind yourself to maintain a positive look when talking to clients.
The End of the Day Blues

When you work eight or more hours a day in customer service, it can be easy to fall into a particular pattern of speaking on the phone. As the day wears on you may find yourself saying very nearly the same things over and over, especially if you have a sales script you are expected to follow in certain situations. The danger lies in sounding like a machine or robot when you are repeatedly saying the same thing again and again.

The longer you are on the phone each day, the more your voice will tend to fall into a monotone rhythm and begin to sound disinterested or rushed. You also may begin to talk faster and slur words together, forgetting to enunciate clearly toward the end of the day.

It is very important that you show the final customer of the day the same courtesy and respect you gave the first. One way to make sure you do not fall into a slump as the day wears on is to get up every hour and take a short walk around the room or do stretching exercises. This will get you breathing deeply again, loosen up your muscles, and revive you.

You should also drink plenty of water. Dehydration often leads to a dry throat, and you may find yourself clearing your throat more often, which sounds off-putting and rude at the other end of the line. When you can, take a few sips of cool water between calls to lubricate your vocal chords and prevent dehydration. If you do this, you will find that it is easier to maintain your enthusiasm at the same level at the end of the day as it is at the beginning, ensuring that you sound upbeat no matter when you field a customer service call.