According to the infamous "They" who seem to know everything, as in "Well, they say there are two definites in life: death and taxes." "They" are wrong. If you work with customers, there are three: death, taxes, and the telephone. And how you work the telephone can either mean money in your pocket or customers who simply hang up and call one of your competitors.
Then there are the experts who spend millions of dollars each year studying how people communicate without saying a word. When face-to-face, we pick up 55% of our cues from body language, 38% from tone of voice, and just 7% from the actual spoken words. But over the telephone, those statistics go right out the window. On the telephone, 86% of a caller's cues come directly from the answering person's tone of voice, and just 14% are picked up from the words he or she chooses to use. Over the telephone, callers make an impression of a business in just four to six seconds – they can tell exactly which mood the associate answering is in, because it comes through loud and clear in the associate's tone of voice, and the associate probably doesn't even realize what he or she is revealing.
The perceptions customers take away from a phone call to your store become their reality. For this piece, we decided to do an informal survey of our own, so we called 50 craft industry retailers, suppliers, manufacturers, and service providers just to see how they answered the telephone. Some did a great job, but far too many left us wishing we'd called someplace else. We coupled what we found with what customers have told us they like and dislike about doing business over the phone. No matter what business you are in, these guidelines will help make sure your customer service over the telephone as great is as it is face-to-face.
1. Answer the telephone within three rings.
The telephone in one of the stores we called rang 16 times before someone answered it. The owner is lucky that we weren't real customers. Then again, if this is how the telephone is always answered, we doubt that he cares.
Most telephone answering machines and voice mail systems are programmed to answer the phone within three rings, making this the standard acceptable time in which to answer the phone. If you don't answer within three rings, customers are likely to think that your business is understaffed, or worse, out of business.
You might be thinking, "Yes, but what do I do if I am alone and I am waiting on another customer who took the time to come in?" Good question. Try this: Ask the customer's permission to answer the phone. Say, "Would you mind if I answered the telephone?" How the customer responds will tell you what to do next. If the customer says it's okay, then take the call. You can ask the caller if she would like to hold for a few moments while you finish with a customer, or you can offer to call back within a specified amount of time.
If the customer says no, then let your voice mail take the call. Your voice mail message must be current, upbeat, and pleasant. It must also reassure the customer that they will get a call back within a specified time frame.
A word to the wise about voice mail: Voice mail is a tool to help you manage your business. If you are one of those people who use voice mail to duck calls, you are not fooling anyone. We all know what you're doing, and we don't like it.
And if you have voice mail answer your main line during business hours, then you'd better be sure that the caller can by-pass the greeting and the menu options to get to a live person. Too much time pressing buttons without being connected to where you want to go is called "Voice Mail Jail" and it leaves customers with a bad impression of your business.
2. Know what you are going to say before you answer the telephone.
Do you have a standard greeting that everyone must use when answering the telephone? Does everyone know and use it? If you have associates who answer the phone in their individual offices, then they need a standardized greeting as well.
Speaking clearly and slowly, you need to greet the caller, give your name, and ask the caller how you can help. Here's a good example: "Good afternoon. Thank you for calling Kizer & Bender Speaking! This is Kathleen. How may I help you?" Or "This is Kathleen at Kizer & Bender Speaking! How may I help you today?"
Rich is well known for how he answers the telephone. In fact, people often call our office just to hear him answer the phone. His enthusiastically delivered standard greeting is: "It's a great day at Kizer & Bender Speaking! This is Rich. How may I help you?"
Rich's enthusiasm is important because customers can "hear" whatever mood he's in. The lesson here is to take a deep breath – and SMILE – before you answer the phone. Callers can tell when you are smiling because it changes your voice. If you are often curt when you answer the phone, then you might want to hang a mirror near your telephone. The the-phone-is-driving-me-nuts look on your face will be the visual you need to remind you to smile.
You might also want to do spot checks when you are away from your business. We had an office assistant once who was wonderful around us, but not so nice when we were out of the office. We discovered this by following our own advice. We called several times over a three-day period and, at best, our assistant was less than helpful, at worst, she was outright rude. She was also replaced.
Caller ID can be a helpful tool, but it can also get you into trouble. We were up against a big deadline one morning and the phone was ringing off the hook. Three times in a row the Caller ID read "unknown" and each of the three times it was a telemarketer who hung up on us. The fourth time the phone rang the Caller ID also read "unknown." Assuming it was another telemarketer, Georganne didn't answer with her normal enthusiasm. Big mistake. The call was from a long-time client who fortunately laughed when George explained why she answered the way she did. Nowadays we try to forget we even have Caller ID.
3. Place a caller on hold with finesse.
Don't you hate it when you call a company, only to hear "Thank you for calling. Please hold," and being placed on hold before you can get a word in edgewise? Your goal should be to avoid placing callers on hold, but when you have to, always, always, always ask their permission first. Say, "Good afternoon, thank you for calling Kizer & Bender Speaking! This is Kathleen. May I place you on hold for a moment?" Then wait for the caller to respond.
If the caller says yes, then you may place the call on hold, but you must get back to the caller within 60 seconds. This is important because 60 seconds feels more like five minutes to the customer on hold.
If the caller says no, ask if you can take a name and telephone number and call them back within an agreed upon time frame.
There will also be times when you must place a caller on hold to look for merchandise or to find the answer to a question. You should give the caller a choice here, too. Say, "This will take a few minutes. Would you like to hold or would you prefer I take your name and number and give you a call back?"
Another thing to consider is what the caller is listening to while on hold. According to Ear Glue, a company specializing in messages and music on hold, 85% of on-hold callers will wait if there is a message on-hold; but 70% will hang up if there are no on-hold messages; and among those who hang up, 34% will not call back. (Visit http://www.earglue.com to learn more.)
4. Efficiently connect callers to the right person or department.
There will be times when you are unable to help the customer and you will need to connect them to the right person. Notice that we said "connect" and not "transfer." Customers who are "transferred" frequently feel like they are being passed off. They also complain that having to tell their story to more than one person is just a waste of time. And the word "connect" just sounds a whole lot friendlier than the word "transfer."
Say you need to connect the caller with the shipping department. In this case you would say, "To get the information that will answer your question, I will need to connect you with the shipping department. Would that be all right?"
Then make sure that someone is there in the shipping department to take the call. When the shipping department answers, be sure to introduce the caller, and explain the reason for the telephone call. Stay on the line for a moment to be sure that the caller is being helped.
5. How to tell a caller that a person is not available.
It's not enough to tell a caller that a person is not available. Here the words you choose create a perception in the caller's mind. Remember that office assistant of ours? She was fond of telling callers that Georganne was "out getting her monthly dye job." Who knows what she said about Rich?
When a person is not available, it is perfectly acceptable to politely say, "She is out of the store/office at the moment. May I take a message for her?" If the person has voice mail you can also offer to connect the caller the person's voice mail box.
6. The fine art of taking a message.
This one is easy. When taking a message always ask for the callers name, telephone number, and reason for the telephone call. You will also want to include the date and time of day the call came in. Before ending the call, repeat the caller's name and verify that you have spelled it correctly. Also repeat the caller's telephone number to make sure that you have not inadvertently transposed any numbers.
Office supply stores have a variety of telephone message books that you can buy. Ours makes a carbon copy of each message so we always have a permanent record of each call. This book also helps us keep track of potential clients.
7. How to politely end the call.
When you sense the conversation is over, repeat what you promised to do, and ask the caller if there is anything else you can help them with. Wish them a nice day, thank them for calling, and always let the caller hang up first. Immediately write down any important information you'll need to complete the caller's request.
E-mail us and we will send you our "Rate Your Company's Telephone Skills" quiz. Have everyone in your company take it individually, then make it the topic of your next staff meeting. You work hard to make sure every aspect of your customer service is top drawer, so make sure that telephone etiquette is part of your ongoing customer service training.
Remember, the way you handle potential customers on the telephone leaves the door open – or closed – to future business.
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