Often, the only impression a customer or client gains of your organisation is the one generated by your staff on the telephone. Research has shown that poor telephone etiquette can result in poor public relations and millions of dollars in lost revenue. Having invested large sums of money in equipment to improve communications with customers, some organisations simply forget to invest in the human skills. First, consider the following advice…

1. Know what really frustrates your callers.

Organisations have suffered in recent years through staff failure to use the telephone appropriately. Recent research reveals that the main frustrations customers or clients experience today in dealing with organisations by telephone are these:

  • taking too long to answer
  • being put ‘on hold’ and forgotten
  • being transferred and having to repeat the inquiry
  • being answered by voice mail and other ‘machines’
  • not having calls returned
  • music on hold, rudeness, perceived indifference, not getting to the point…

If you can do something about these frustrations, then you’ll restore the telephone to a position as your organisation’s most valuable communications tool.

2. Be familiar with new technology.

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First make sure you and your staff become expert in dealing with the equipment. If you have the technology, it’s foolish not to be fully familiar with the advantages it can provide. Do you know how to:

  • transfer a call
  • park a call
  • discern a distinctive ring tone
  • redirect calls in your absence
  • place calls on hold
  • set up ‘automatic callback’
  • operate the PABX
  • use the conference phone facility?

Don’t test your caller’s patience while you bumble your way through the technology at your end.

3. Pick up the handset – consciously.

Remember the saying: ‘You never get a second chance to make a first impression’. So be conscious of that advice whenever you pick up the phone. Consider these pointers:

  • Answer promptly. If possible, pick up the handset before the third ring ends.
  • Quickly finish off any office conversation before lifting the handset so that the caller doesn’t hear any irrelevant discussion.
  • Put a smile in your voice. It may sound silly, but your voice actually has a more pleasant tone when you’re smiling. So, answer the phone with a smile.
  • When answering, say ‘Good morning’ or ‘Good afternoon’, then identify your organisation and yourself.

4. Be organised.

By being organised you will minimise caller frustration:

  • No caller likes to wait for you to ‘find a scrap of paper to write on’. Always have message pads and pens on hand.
  • Minimise screening questions. It may be justifiable for staff to screen your calls, but make sure they don’t turn the call into an interrogation.
  • Listen carefully for how callers pronounce their names – phonetically spell tricky names on any message slip.
  • Make sure your assistant has a copy of your schedule in case a caller requests an appointment or wishes to call back.
  • Keep your internal telephone directory up to date for accurate call transfers.
  • Ensure your phones are never left unattended during lunch breaks, holiday periods, and staff absences. A continuously ringing phone advertises a slack organisation.

5. Take pride in the quality of your conversation.

Train your employees (and yourself) to be concerned, interested, and efficient on the phone. In particular:

  • Sound confident, knowledgeable, and unrushed.
  • Take enough time to establish the caller’s needs clearly.
  • Try to eliminate verbal pauses, abrupt or garbled speech habits, ‘ums’, ‘ahs’, ‘you knows’, and other sloppy talk.
  • Speak slowly and distinctly. The information being sought may be routine to you but it’s not to most callers. Make the caller feel important. Repeat the information if necessary. Leave the caller happy.
  • Don’t smoke, chew, slouch, shout, or whisper when on the phone.
  • Cover the mouthpiece if you must talk to another staff member. Be warned, however, the caller can probably still hear what you are saying.
  • When leaving voice mail or answering machine messages, try not to speak in a mad rush as if you are about to be cut off. Enunciate clearly, especially your name and number.

6. Put yourself in the caller’s place.

Empathise with the person on the other end of the phone. Treat callers as you’d like to be treated – be courteous and helpful:

  • Don’t keep your caller on hold for any inordinate time.
  • Give callers the option of holding, speaking to someone else, leaving a message, or having their calls returned.
  • Avoid terse, unfriendly phrases such as ‘Hold on …’.
  • Never answer a question with ‘I don’t know’. Instead, say: ‘I’m not sure – but I’ll find out and get back to you before close of business.’
  • If you promise to return a call, do so – promptly – even if merely to say you’re still working on the caller’s request.
  • Respond promptly. If the caller wanted an answer next week, you would have been sent a letter, not a phonecall!
  • Check that your message distribution procedures are efficient.
  • Use your caller’s name. It replaces the eye contact you normally give when face to face.
  • Ensure your staff know how to handle complaints and irate callers, and how to terminate long-winded calls courteously.
  • Don’t forget: The telephone hides your face but not your attitude.

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