Good phone manners have always been important, of course. Yet too few companies make any effort to train employees in phone etiquette, says Nancy Friedman, president and founder of the Telephone Doctor, a St. Louis-based customer service training company. The result is often lost business, irate customers and squandered opportunities, she says.
Two decades ago, Friedman and her husband Dick founded their company after Friedman suffered some particularly bad (and clearly inspirational) service from an insurance company. Friedman says she’s still amazed at the number of corporations, small businesses and even call centers that ignore basic phone courtesies.
The No. 1 complaint from business professionals and consumers alike, according to Telephone Doctor surveys, is being put on hold. “Always ask, ‘Are you able to hold?’” Friedman advises. “Putting people on hold without asking permission is a no-no.”
Coincidentally, or not, rudeness is on the rise nationwide, according to the most recent survey on courtesy conducted by Public Agenda, a nonprofit research arm of The Pew Charitable Trusts. A whopping 8 out of every 10 Americans (79%) say that a lack of respect and courtesy should be regarded as a serious national problem. One dramatic finding was that rudeness knows no boundaries, as all regions and demographic audiences in the United States were equally at fault.
Customer service by phone evoked one of the survey’s most negative reactions. Some 94% of the respondents called it “very frustrating” to call a company and be greeted by a recording rather than a person.
I canvassed communications and customer-service experts to bring to you the worst 10 things you can utter on a business call. These are, of course, in addition to that peremptory no-no: “Hold on.” Keep in mind that phone courtesy, like all good manners, is largely based on common sense. You want to respond in the way you like to be treated.
So, if you want to keep and add customers, keep your employees from saying these things on the phone.
1. “That’s not our policy.” This ubiquitous and pathetic excuse to avoid taking action on complaints or requests is not only poor manners. It’s also damaging. Who cares what is or isn’t “policy.” What dolt sets it? Think: How can any company policy rationalize hanging up on dissatisfied customers? If an employee cannot grant the request or fix the complaint, he or she ought to consult a superior for advice or be given authority to find alternatives that will transform the customer from disgruntled to appreciative. Either way, keep the customer informed at every stage.
2. “That’s not my department,” or “That’s not my job.” Like we care. Everyone and anyone working for the company must be prepared to field any and every caller’s needs. At the very least, if the employee lacks knowledge or responsibility, he or she should get a phone number, ask a manager for help and call back, expeditiously, with information that does the trick.
3. “Could you call back? We’re real busy right now.” This one boggles the business mind. But employees say it more often than you’d think. It always makes me wonder: Busy with what? Lunch dates? Make sure no staffer you hire ever gets away with saying anything even close to this.
4. “My computer’s down,” or “We’re having trouble with our servers.” This is simply not a caller’s problem, nor a reason to suspend service. Business runs with or without active monitors. Even if the caller is a supplier that you hire and fire, apologize for the fact that you cannot help. Then pick up a pencil, write down the phone number, and (read this carefully) get back to him or her as soon as you can help — unfailingly.
5. “Didn’t you get my voice mail?” In the bygone days of human operators, there was always that handy someone to blame when you wanted to duck a call or pretend you never got the message. But this tech update won’t fly. Today, with 24/7 voice mail and (duh!) recorded timestamps, it’s patently transparent. You cannot pretend a response when there wasn’t one. If you fail to return a call in a timely and courteous manner, just face the music and apologize. This advice further applies to people who make a habit of returning calls during off-hours, like 7 a.m., lunchtime or 10 p.m., when respondents aren’t likely to be at their desks. Oh, witless wonders: Timestamps tell all.
6. “I was just waiting to get more information before calling you back.” Ditto about transparent pretexts. Everyone knows this is a ploy. If you were really gathering info, you’d send an interim e-mail or leave an explanatory voice mail — which is what every pro does with important contacts. All this phrase does is insult the caller by signaling that he or she has no priority in your schedule — or else that you’re incompetent. Either way, if you’re avoiding someone’s calls, be more creative.
7. “Hi. Is Pat or Sam or Morgan or Tyler there?” Increasingly, people have gender-neutral names. Sam is often short for Samantha. If you ask for Sam when she answers her phone, “you signaled in three seconds that you’re a cold call,” says Chris Tessier, manager of public relations for Pitney Bowes in Stamford, Conn. “Before making any such calls you ought to look up the company’s Web page or do a search for the person you’re calling.” Do your homework.
8. “Wait a sec. I’m putting you on my speakerphone.” Like the hold button, this shouldn’t be used without first gaining caller permission. Many experts think it’s fine once the caller says OK, but, personally, I’m always opposed to speakerphone conversations. I find them awkward and annoying. Voices bounce and echo. You can never quite hear anyone or figure out who’s talking. You also never know who’s listening in and what kind of impression you’re making on the gang who’s eavesdropping. I always feel like I’m talking to a club that didn’t vote me in.
9. “I’ll see that she calls you.” This is pure self-protection. “You should only promise to deliver the message, not that there will be a return call,” Friedman says. It’s not up to you to promise someone else’s attention. If there is no return call, you’ve created unnecessary disappointment or irritation.
10. “I just buried my mother.” Honestly, I wouldn’t have thought it necessary to tell anyone not to mention personal tragedies or traumas during business calls. But this one actually happened to me. I called an online retailer to ask about a purchase that hadn’t shown up after three weeks. The e-tailer owner first said she was “at the mercy of the manufacturer,” which was very slow. She then excused her delay by literally saying her mom had just died. My take: She’s got all my sympathies, but she lost me as a customer. Never bring your personal problems into business conversations, unless you have a long-term and personal friendship with the caller.
These days, says Pitney Bowes’ Tessier, “phone calls are more about maintaining the customer relationship and less of a tool for customer acquisition.” Attitude matters. Courtesy counts. Tone tells all. Every time an employee picks up a receiver, the possibility of gaining or losing business is on the line. Make sure your opportunities don’t go unanswered.