Servicing Your Customers By Phone

No matter how many people work in your organization, your customer may only come into contact with only one person -- the person who answers the phone. If that person is you, you are your company. If you say the wrong thing or treat that customer with disrespect, the customer will not only dislike you, but your entire organization. So how do you keep this from happening?

The First Encounter

I recall arriving for a sales appointment where the receptionist greeted me coldly and told me to have a seat. While I was waiting, another man entered the door and asked to see the president of the company. The receptionist harked, "He's not seeing anyone today. He doesn't see anyone without an appointment."

The man grimaced and said, "I just moved my company to this part of town and I was thinking about using your company as my supplier."

The woman's face dropped, "Oh. Let me get the president for you."

The man replied, "Don't bother. After seeing how you do business, I'm not interested any more."

On the phone, you may be guilty of assuming why a person is calling. If you treat every person who calls your office -- suppliers and solicitors included -- like they are your best customers, you'll never have this problem. Everyone is a potential customer. Children grow up. People change jobs. Make every person's contact with your company a positive one.

Answering the Phone

How do you greet people when they phone your company? My biggest pet peeve is listening to receptionists who sound like they're competing for the fastest mouth in the west. Slow down so the caller understands your words and doesn't feel rushed.

Greet the customer (i.e. Good morning!), say the name of your company, introduce yourself, and if appropriate ask, "How may I serve you?" When it's absolutely necessary to put the customer on hold, ASK if you can put him on hold (i.e. Can you hold, please?) and WAIT for their answer before you press the button. Never say, "Hold, please." without waiting for a response. Those two words are an oxymoron -- saying please will not make up for the fact that you cut him off.

Directing the Calls

If you're going to answer the phone, you must be knowledgeable about your company. If you don't know where to go when a question is asked, a sale could be lost over a confusing trail of voice mail transfers. When you don't know the answer to your caller's question, the proper response is, "I don't know the answer to your question. However, if you'll hold, I'll check with Ron. He'll know the answer." This sends the message to the caller that you are in control of the situation. Never say, "I don't know. I'm new here." Even if you are new, the customer doesn't want to know that. He just wants the answer.

Ask enough questions to establish the caller's need. Listen carefully to his answers and take notes. If he has a problem and he doesn't ask for a particular person, make sure you choose a person who will be able to help him. Your goal is to make sure the customer is transferred as little as possible. When you determine where to transfer the caller, give him the name before you transfer (i.e. Mr. Jackson, I'm going to transfer you to Jean Green. She'll be able to answer your questions.)

When the Party's Not Around

What happens when the caller asks for someone who is out or cannot come to the phone? Never say the party is unavailable or busy. Unavailable implies you're lying. Busy implies the party is too busy for customers. Instead, give the caller some control by offering him options. If Ron is in a meeting, say, "Ron is in a meeting that will last until 4:00. I can take a message, or perhaps I can help you. I'm his assistant." If Ron is at lunch and it's late in the afternoon, there's no need to tell the caller everything. Just say, "Ron will be out of the office most of the afternoon. May I have him return your call when he returns?"

When taking messages, always ask the caller to spell his name -- even if it's John Smith. He may spell it Jon Smythe. Request the phone number and repeat it back. Then ask, "What is the best time for Joe to reach you?" This helps reduce phone tag.

Is Voice Mail Good for You?

If your company employs four or more people, I would suggest having a receptionist plus a voice mail system. A larger company must have a human receptionist. Many callers need initial direction to find where to go to solve their problem.

If you have under four employees and the luxury of a full-time receptionist would crunch your budget, use a voice mail system alone. Do not use an answering machine if at all possible. Answering machines are not voice mail. Most answering machines have poor sound quality, are unprofessional and only take short messages. Most phone companies today offer inexpensive, professional sounding voice mail systems that include several voice mail boxes. Explore your options.

Staff Stuff

I called a major department store chain the other day to ask a simple service question. A voice mail message said all their operators were busy and the best time to call would be between 2:00 and 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday or Friday. Instead of taking a message, the system clicked off. I still had a question and I had to wait till it was convenient for the department store to answer. Thank goodness my problem was simple. Imagine what happens to customers who call in when they have a major appliance that malfunctions. They're already frustrated when they call -- and then they get a message telling them to wait until Friday.

For a little more money, the department store could add a few more customer service reps and save their customers some trouble. If they lose 40 customers a year who each spend an average of $1,000 in their stores, they've lost $40,000. Not to mention the 11 friends they'll tell about their bad experience. That's 440 more people negatively touched by their customer service department. It would have been a lot less expensive to hire the extra help.

Every Contact Counts

Make every contact with your customers a positive one. You've read this article and you could be a salesperson or a CEO or a receptionist for all I know. Every person in your organization IS your organization. Develop service over the phone that makes a positive and lasting impact.


About the author

Joe Bonura Bonura Business Development Group, Inc. 12931 W US Highway 42 Prospect, Kentucky 40059 (800) 444-3340 toll free (502) 292-2814 phone

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