Handling Telephone Contacts for Great Customer Service
Today's customers do not always immediately walk into our store. We also need to provide great customer service over the telephone to those customers who prefer to communicate and transact in that way. While the principles are the same, how they are carried out is slightly different, and we will look at that in this article.
Increasingly, people find that the telephone, in that scenario, is a great way to do business. As well, there are plenty of other situations where the telephone is a primary way to conduct business. So it is essential in both the retail setting, known as business to customer (B2C), and in other settings, such as business to business (B2B), that an understanding of successful telephone service can be provided.
The telephone can sometimes be thought of as a necessary evil and an annoyance or interruption in one's day. However, it also provides two distinct benefits for businesses who use it wisely:
  • A phone is a way to contact customers where they are rather than having them come in. Customers feel more comfortable in this setting, which can open them up to further sales. It also keeps you at the top of their mind.
  • A phone is an efficient tool: You will spend less time doing the same work than you would if you were talking to them in person.
Here are some ways that you can provide great service on the telephone. Not all will apply to your industry or specific business, but they give you an idea of what can be done over the phone:
  • Greet prospects and uncover needs.
  • Make sales.
  • Follow up with customer satisfaction calls.
  • Perform warranty management.
  • Answer questions and remove objections.
  • Provide niche information, like public service announcements for your particular customer niche.
These can be incoming or outgoing calls, individual or pre-recorded. In each of these cases, the phone can be used with great success to help build your business and provide great customer service.
General service tips for the telephone: When calling, be sure to get the person's name and use it frequently. People love to hear their own names and it shows that you are paying attention to them. In person you may give other signals through body language to show that you are paying attention, but on the phone you do not have that option. Using the customer's name frequently is the best option.
Smile when you talk because people can hear the smile and they respond positively to it.
Be sure to sit up straight to allow your lungs and diaphragm to breathe. This will give your voice a clearer, stronger sound.
Keep a binder of commonly requested information near the phone so that you do not have to look for it when someone calls; it is right at your fingertips. This might include the most recent catalogue, sales promotions, frequently requested telephone numbers, or Web site addresses.
Service and sales success tips for incoming calls: For people calling into your business, you should provide more than one number if possible. For example, a local and a toll-free number are ideal if you want to maximize your volume of calls.
Try to answer the phone in two rings. Psychologically, answering the phone in one ring seems that you have nothing better to do than to wait for the phone to ring, and often people are not prepared for the phone to be answered that soon. If the phone goes past three rings, people expect to get a voice mail message and can be surprised when you do answer. Although it is not always possible, two rings is the ideal time to answer the phone.
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Be careful about what people hear when they first call. Is it a long, recorded phone gauntlet, in which they have to press 1 for one department and press 2 for another department? Some of these are simple and clear, but other times they are too difficult to maneuver, such as when the only option is to spell out the name of the person you want to talk to. What if you do not know whom to talk to or you cannot spell that person's name? Phone directories of this type can be effective but also sometimes frustrating for customers. Be sure to create good, clear, general options on the phone, and always provide an option to speak to a real, live person during business hours. The more personal you want your business to feel, the less you will want to use these phone directories.
Another solid success tip to know is when your company does not use a phone gauntlet but rather has someone answering the phone. Everyone who answers that phone should answer in the same way, even if they are answering the phone in an extension buried deep within the company. That way, if the extension is dialed by accident, the person calling and getting this individual by accident will still know what company they are calling. One good example would be, "XYZ, Inc. John Smith speaking. How may I help you?"
When times are busy, the phone seems to be ringing non-stop, and several in-person customers are vying for your attention, what do you do with the phone? A constantly ringing phone can be an annoyance for your in-store customers because it is loud and takes away your attention. At the same time, when someone is calling, they have a reasonable expectation to have their call answered and responded to. So, if it is possible in your business, avoid having a telephone at the front counter where customers are and allow your sales staff to just deal with in-store customers. Hire someone else to answer the telephone. If that is not possible, consider turning the telephone down or off when a customer is in the store.
When the phone is answered during a busy period, it is best not to answer the phone in this way: "XYZ, Inc., please hold." If that is how you have to answer the phone, it is better to let it go to voice mail and get the message later.
Voice mail can be a powerful tool if used effectively. Create a strong, dynamic message and keep it consistent throughout your company. Give a time frame in which people can expect to receive a call back and live up to that time frame. Also, consider including your uniform resource locator (URL) address in your voice mail message so that people can go to your Web site. They may opt to do that and have their questions answered rather than leave a message.
Service and sales success tips for outgoing calls: The best telephone tip to make sure you provide the best service is to prepare for every call. The best way to do this is to think of a single point that you want to make. Do you:
  • want your customer to be informed?
  • want your customer to call you back?
  • want your customer to come into the store and buy from you?
Think about which of the points above or similar ones you want to achieve. Make sure each call has one and only one. Then prepare the information for that call for just that message. It is too easy for people to just dump all of the information they think is appropriate onto their customers. Unfortunately, when they hang up, the customer thinks, "That was good, but what do I do now?" Having a single point will help solve that problem.
When dialing out, be sure that you are prepared for a voice mail if you get it. Nothing sounds so unprofessional as someone who is caught off guard by a voice mail message. Here's what to do when you get a voice mail message:
  • Give your name.
  • Give your company name.
  • Give your number.
  • State the reason that you are calling.
  • Tell them what you would like them to do, such as call you back, etc.
  • Restate your name.
  • Restate your company name.
  • Restate your number.
Using the phone to measure customer service: One popular method of telephone use lately is to measure customer service. This can be a great way to discover how your customers feel about you, but it can also backfire on you.

Companies either hire out a third party company or do the phoning themselves. They call customers who had previously purchased something and ask them questions to see whether or not they are completely satisfied.
Unfortunately, customers can sometimes view these calls as an annoyance if they are too long or happen too far in the distant future from the purchase. As well, the smaller the purchase, the greater chance there is that they could view the call as an annoyance.
It is still an effective way to measure customer service. However, to do a good job, call the customer within a week from the time the purchase was made and do not ask more than three questions. Have at least one question be a quick scale question, such as,"On a scale from 1 to 5, how would you rate ... ? " and use a simple scale, such as 1 is unsatisfied and 5 is satisfied.
Always take these telephone customer service measurements with a grain of salt because:
  • customers sometimes confuse these calls with telemarketing calls and can become upset.
  • some customers believe there is no reason to give a perfect score because they would not have been fully satisfied unless the product was free.
  • some customers prefer to transact business and not be hassled by follow-up calls.

Still this type of customer service follow-up can be a powerful technique.

Conclusion The telephone is a great customer service tool. When used effectively, it allows you to efficiently work with customers while still providing great service.
Telephone Contacts, Part II

Talking on the phone is an art that many business people are not familiar with. Today we tend to be very informal and rushed on the phone, which is not appropriate when dealing with customers. Some additional instruction on business telephone etiquette will enable you to impress your customers with every call.

Phone etiquette in general: You may know what to say when you answer the phone, but do you know how to say it? Being clear and precise when speaking is just as important as saying the right things. Remember, the person calling generally is not going to recognize your voice and may be unsure of whom to ask for. When you talk, pronounce each word clearly, speak slowly, and talk directly into the receiver so that the caller can understand you.

If customers begin to ask a question, do not talk over them or finish the sentence for them. Remember, these are not people you know and you are not a mind-reader. Even if you have a pretty good idea of what they are calling about, talking over them will give them the impression you are rushing them off the phone or are getting impatient with them, which are not impressions you want to make.

Listen carefully when the caller asks you a question. You may run into a problem understanding a caller because she or he talks too fast, has an unfamiliar accent or a speech impediment. Do not try to guess what was said. Ask politely if the person can repeat the question, explaining that you did not understand. If you start with an apology, they will not take offense; for example, say, "I'm sorry, sir, but I didn't quite catch your question. Could you please repeat that for me?" If the customer has given his or her name, be sure you write it down for future reference and ask for the proper spelling to prevent misunderstandings. For example, say, "You say your name is Ronald Thompson? Would that be Thompson with or without a 'p'? I want to make sure I've spelled it correctly."

A few other tips to keep in mind when you are talking on the phone to a customer:

· Give the caller your undivided attention. Do not work on your computer, shuffle papers, or do any other work while on the phone. Callers deserve your undivided attention, and most people can tell when you are only half listening.

· Never answer the phone with anything in your mouth, including gum, candy, or your lunch. Chomping in someone's ear sounds horrible. Do not sip your coffee while listening, either. The receiver will magnify your slurping.

· Make phone calls when there is minimal background noise. If possible, close your office door. Always turn down the radio and avoid calling when office news is at its peak.

· If someone steps into your office or cubicle, indicate non-verbally that you are on the phone. Never interrupt a customer call to chat with someone else; it signals that the call is unimportant to you.

Putting a customer on hold: When customers call, try to avoid putting them on hold at all costs. Remember, their time is as important as yours and they may feel slighted if you interrupt them and put them on hold, particularly if they are left hanging indefinitely. If you must briefly put them on hold -- for instance, to transfer them to the appropriate person -- be sure they know what you are doing and agree to it and they wait only a limited amount of time.

If you have to put a caller on hold, be sure you ask first and make sure they agree to it before proceeding. Some customers would rather call back or leave a message than wait around on hold, particularly if they are calling from a cell phone or from their place of employment. Never answer the phone and immediately put the caller on hold. There is nothing as irritating as hearing, "Thank you for calling, please hold." It is impersonal and gives callers the impression that you assume whatever you have to do is more important than their call.

If you must put someone on hold, ask him or her if it is okay. If the caller expresses concern, explain that it will be only briefly and explain why you need to put the call on hold. For instance, explain that you need to transfer the call to someone who can provide assistance or so that you can pull the customer's file. Whatever the reason, make it clear to the caller so that she or he understands you are doing so in order to provide assistance, but keep it brief and to the point.

When you put someone on hold, do not forget about the call. Remember to check on it every 30 to 40 seconds and give the caller an update if you or someone else cannot get back to the call immediately. Again, short and simple is the best route: "Mr. Wilson? Jack will be right with you; he's just finishing another call." After two or three minutes, do not be surprised if the caller hangs up in frustration. If you are not sure how long a caller will be left hanging on hold, your best bet is to take a message instead and assure the customer that you will relay the message and have someone get back to her or him as soon as possible.

Taking a message: If a customer calls and the person they need or want to talk to is not available, be sure to take a clear, detailed message that can be relayed to the appropriate individual. Ask the caller if you may take a message, then wait for an answer. If the caller agrees, provide a brief explanation as to why you need to take a message and cannot offer immediate assistance. For example, "I'm sorry, but Mike is out of the office and you will need to talk to him. Can I take a message and have him get back to you?" or "I need to turn this over to the billing department. If I could take a message, someone from that department will check on this and call you back with an answer."

When taking the message, you should always note the following information:

  • The customer's name and a phone number.
  • Whom the caller would like to talk to if he or she has a preference.
  • The caller's question or concern.
  • A convenient time when the caller can be reached.
  • The day, time, and date of the call.

Write everything down and be sure to ask for the spelling of the caller's name or any other information you are not sure about. Write out the message clearly and concisely and sign it with your name so that if there are any questions, the recipient knows with whom to follow up. Make sure you relay the message as soon as possible.

Speaker phone use: In some cases, you may use a speaker phone when talking with a customer. Generally speaking, this should only be in the event of a meeting, when several people will be contributing to the conversation, and with the permission of the caller. If you are busy or have your hands full, it is tempting to put a customer on speaker phone for your convenience; however, this creates multiple problems. First and foremost, if callers do not know that they are on speaker phone, they may say things they would have preferred remain private. What if they are relaying credit card information, complaining about service from an employee they do not know is listening, or explaining why they are late with some payments? Any of these scenarios should be completely private; a speaker phone invites not only other employees but potentially in-store customers to listen in on the caller's business.

Speaker phones also are notoriously difficult for the caller in terms of sound quality. While you can hear the caller quite easily because he is speaking directly into the receiver, your customer is probably struggling on his end because the speaker is picking up all of the background noise on your end. It is also likely to annoy your customer if he or she has to ask you to repeat yourself because you are moving about your office or there are other conversations taking place nearby.

The speaker phone should only be used with the caller's permission and if the speaker phone is in a location that will ensure little if any interference; i.e., a conference room with the door closed. The only others listening should be those individuals who are relevant to the conversation, and they should always be introduced properly to customers so that they know who is listening. For instance, "Mr. Rinaldi, if it's okay, I'd like to put you on speaker phone because our manager, Mrs. Fleet, is here. I think among the three of us, we can work this out to your satisfaction."

Ending phone calls: Always end any customer service telephone calls on a positive note. Thank customers for calling and wish them a good day. If they are not happy with the result of the call, apologize and, if you plan to continue trying to pursue a satisfactory result, let them know it. After you have thanked a customer and wished him or her well, allow some time for the caller to hang up. Try not to be the first person to hang up the phone to avoid giving the impression that you are rushing the caller off the line. If you end each call on a positive note, customers are more likely to keep coming back. Often, the last impression you make is the one they carry with them long after the call is ended. The proper courtesy at the end of a frustrating call can turn the entire situation around.



There is more to good phone etiquette than simply how you answer a call. Today's technology can muddy the waters of customer service relations, unless you always keep in mind that the customer's needs must come first.