Talking on the telephone with customers is a pretty unflashy form of customer service interaction. And as a customer service consultant, trainer, and eLearning training designer, I can sense how its importance is getting overlooked more and more.
Too bad: The telephone’s ability to provide human-on-human interaction with real-time cues continues to make it a powerful brand builder, a way to turn your customer service operation from a cost center to a source of customer engagement, loyalty and revenue.
In today’s varied, tech-informed customer support landscape, voice-based customer support via the telephone is more important than ever before.
This is because:
- With the rise of digital communication and self-service, telephone conversations between customers and brands have become rarer — and thus more precious. When a customer only interacts with you on the phone once or twice in their entire journey with your company (rather than every day or even multiple times a day), every call represents a chance to make a real and lasting connection. This single interaction can create a halo of personal connection and care that can positively color all those other electronic, often non-peopled interactions that are so typical today.
- Customers are typically in greater need (even distress) when they reach out to a business on the phone today. They’re more likely to be at their wit’s end, dealing with a thorny problem that self-service tools have failed to answer. In this situation, they’re likely to feel gratitude for every ounce of phone skills we can command.
- A telephone conversation offers a chance to shine in a cue-rich environment. A telephone conversation offers multiple clues as to what is going on emotionally on both sides of the conversation, including tone and volume of voice, speed of speech, length of pauses, and more. This allows you to adjust your approach in real-time in response, which can improve your ability to solve problems with empathy and aplomb and ultimately deepen your customer connections.
This, in turn, can help you shine as a brand and as an organization and help you make strides toward building up to an iconic level of customer service.
To start on the right telephonic foot (so to speak!), a business should consider its answers to the following five questions, which I focus on in my customer service training and consulting when working on improving telephone procedures and nailing down best practices.
Related: 5 Life-Changing Customer Service Secrets You Can Learn From Five-Star Hotels
1. Who should be answering our telephones?
Unfortunately, it is commonplace for companies to consider reception and phone support entry-level jobs — positions that an employee is supposed to graduate from as quickly as possible. But isn’t it safer to put entry-level employees in positions hidden from customers rather than front and center, where they become the company’s voice?
In my experience, the right employee to become your company’s voice is not looking to graduate quickly from that position but instead willing to devote themselves to making the most of it.
And be sure you don’t count out those of an advanced age! In my experience, a grandparent, parent or someone else with extensive and varied life experience is often the person who can provide a calming, empathetic, personable phone experience better than anyone.
Related: 5 Phone Answering Mistakes That Drive Away Customers
2. How quickly should we be picking up?
You need to aim to pick up by, or just after, the third ring. By the fourth ring, callers start to feel uncomfortable, doubting whether you’ll ever pick up, and they begin to assume that if you finally do, you’ll be too distracted, overwhelmed or flustered to be much help. If you commit to the 3-ring rule, you’ll be joining some iconic companies, such as Nordstrom and the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company who have taken the 3-ring limit to heart. (In fact, it’s standard of the Forbes Travel Guide rating system; you get points taken off if you delay beyond that third ring.)
Related: The Best Customer Service Companies Spend These 8 Minutes A Day Becoming Better Than the Rest of Us
3. What should we say when we answer?
The absolute most important things to convey here to the caller are 1. That they’ve reached the right place 2. Your name.
But if you really want to get this right, consider taking a page out of the customer service training I offer. If you’ve worked with me ever before, you know I preach that you include at least four elements in your answer, any time you pick up an external line. e.g.,
1. A greeting: “Thank you for calling,”||
2. The name of your business: “Business X”
3. Your name: “This is [Julie] or [Julie Smith]
4. An offer to help: “How may I help you?”
4. What should we sound like when we pick up?
Fabulous, of course! Achieving this will depend on multiple elements working in concert, including the following two key secrets to getting off with a great start:
- Make sure you’re smiling. When you smile, it changes your vocal tone in a very easy way to pick up, even within the limited audio range of a phone line. Some veteran phone professionals even use tape or Velcro to stick a compact mirror at eye level in their workspace to remind them to smile every time they pick up the phone. Yes, I know this is dorky, but it works. (A quick caution about sounding cheery and smiley at the wrong time: Once you’ve given your initial greeting on the phone, it becomes time to start emulating the mood and pacing of your customer. This will sometimes call for something other than a cheery tone of voice.
- Make sure that you sound focused on the caller from the first second that the customer hears your voice. Customers can sense even the briefest moment of disengagement at the beginning of a call. Pause any prior activity before answering the phone to be sure your mind is entirely focused on the call — and that you sound that way.
Related: 5 Ways You’re Wasting Your Customer’s Time on the Phone
5. How should we conclude each call?
Ending your call on a good note — providing a “fond farewell” — is as important (or nearly as important) as getting the opening of your call right. This is because of the proximity effect, the psychological finding that the last part of an interaction lingers in someone’s memory.
As the call is winding down, ask if anything else is needed. If the caller answers “no,” conclude the interaction with a personal farewell that includes their name and perhaps another personal detail like, “It’s been great working with you, Margaret. I’ll see you back here on Thursday, and I’ll call you if anything changes.” Also, if it’s appropriate to the situation, invite them to call on you for assistance in the future.
Related: 5 Simple Ways to Get Prospects to Stay on the Phone With You
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