In today’s world, besides a face-to-face encounter, customers primarily use a telephone or email when they want to reach a Customer Service Representative (CSR). The focus of this article is on basic telephone etiquette with the understanding that there is only one difference between communicating face-to-face and communicating over the telephone. You are heard, but not seen. I will leave the e-mail and the CSR for another time.
Telephone communication is one step removed from face-to-face communication in that the CSR cannot see the individual and hence will not get the full impact of the communication process. What is missing is an appreciation of the demeanor, look and body language of the customer. However a critical listening ear can certainly detect the level of feelings projected by the customer. A CSR should be able to determine if the customer is angry, anxious, concerned, frustrated or inquisitive by listening to the tone of the voice.
Smile as you talk. Although the customer can’t see you a smile somehow comes through the telephone. Physically smiling forces the CSR to speak clearly so you will be better understood. A smile often reduces frustration and has a calming effect on the customer.
It is common practice among many businesses to place people on hold. Customers are often peeved about this particularly if they are on hold for lengthy periods of time while ‘canned’ music or “company advertisements” are played over and over again in their ear. By the time the CSR comes on the line, the customer is frustrated and if they are mad about a product or a service they become more irate. Recognize the frustration and apologize sincerely for having to place the customer on hold. Your apology does two things: 1) you immediately give the impression that you understand the customer’s frustration; 2) you reduce the potential for a tense conversation about “being on hold.”
Control the length of time you place a customer on “hold.” If you have identified your name and the name of your company – you can hold indefinitely; if you have not, place the customer on hold for a maximum of 15 seconds.
Breathe and Pauses
Use short sentences when you talk. This lets you breathe easily so you can control your voice. For those of us who tend to ramble talking in short sentences takes practice. As you speak keep the microphone end of the phone away from your mouth so that your breathing doesn’t project over the phone.
Pause after each point you make. This allows the point to sink in and gives some time for the customer to respond.
Turn sentences into questions whenever possible. This makes the customer more ready to respond and give you feedback during your conversation. Ask what, how, why, when and where questions. These tend to be more open-ended and give the customer a chance to explain in more detail their concern. After the response paraphrase your understanding of the customer’s response. This allows the customer to agree with your understanding or correct your understanding. Once there is mutual understanding ask for agreement.
One of the advantages that the CSR has is the customer often uses their name at the beginning of a conversation. “This is Richard speaking.” If the customer doesn’t use their name, then ask as well as give your name. During the conversation use the customer’s name frequently. This shows that you are interested in him/her rather than just another number. Using names perks up the person to listen more attentively and initiates a closer bond between the customer and CSR. Whenever possible, close the conversation with your name and thank the person by name. Indicate that if there are further questions later to ask for you by name or indicate that you have made a note of their concern to file so that when the customer calls back another CSR can pick up the conversation from where you left off earlier.
Whenever the CSR is conversing with the customer, basic etiquette is always in order. Keep three words in your head at all times: respect, polite and tact. A CSR does not have to accept telephone bullying, swearing and disrespectful behaviour on the part of the customer, but the CSR never bullies, swears or disrespects the customer. Respectfulness, politeness and tactfulness projects a CSR that is in control, wants to listen and adheres to the dignity of others. All customers are different, but all share certain characteristics. One of them is they want to be heard with respect.
Listening is an absolute critical telephone skill. The CSR not only has to listen to what is said, but also what is not said. This takes a special skill. Often what is said is the presenting problem for the customer. What is not said is the ‘real problem.’ By listening to both what is said and what is not said, the CSR can assist customers in clarifying their request and the CSR gains an understanding of the customer’s real issue. To learn more about listening to understand read this article.
Paraphrasing and listening go hand in hand. It is the skill you use to check to make sure what you have understood relates to what you have heard. It is a useful way of giving you some time to think of what to say next. It is your assurance that what you have heard is interpreted correctly. It is also a way to show the other person that you have understood them and gives them an opportunity to add to or clarify their statements. When you paraphrase you usually end with rephrasing what the person has said.
Sometimes we use jargon, complex sentences and unclear logic when speaking with customers. Jargon is useful shorthand for us, but if customers don’t understand what it means then we do not serve them appropriately. Use words that translate the jargon. These will improve the chances of customer’s understanding the message.
Tone of voice
Ever wonder what our customers might be thinking when they hear our voice? Usually if they like what they hear they will more likely perceive you as confident and professional. If they don’t like what they hear they may “tune out.” During in-person conversations your voice is one of the vehicles we can use to build trust. This is more true when we are speaking over the telephone. Our voice tone conveys more than words - it places emphasis on what we say and how it may be understood. Connected with voice tone is voice profile - how fast we speak, the pitch we use, the loudness of our voice and the clarity of our words. To be a star customer service professional your voice must always sound
This may sound silly, but it works. Use gestures as you talk. The customer won’t be able to see you, but it will help you make your point. We often use gestures when we speak face-to-face. We use them to: help us with our presentation, provide emphasis, express our thoughts and communicate emotions. Since gestures often come naturally to us and can be interpreted as conveying warmth, energy and affability, they become a useful technique even when they are not seen.
Leaving a Message
A final reminder: when leaving a message make it short, give your name and telephone at the beginning of the message and at the end, and speak slowly.
Thanks for Reading,
Richard P. Fontanie
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