Telephone Faux Pas

Are your telephone skills costing you customers? Find out why Customer Service Starts on the Telephone!

“Hello! Is anyone there? Hello!”

“CCRRRSSSHHHH…ur order please.”

“Yeah, I’ll have the two cheeseburgers value meal, Dr. Pepper, no super size.”

(long pause) “CCRRRSSSHHHH…thirty eight. Please drive arou…”


“CCRRRSSSHHHH…thirty eight. Next window plea…CCRRRSSSHHHH”

Although I was at a McDonalds, I could have sworn that clown head from Jack-In-The-Box was laughing at me. This fast food drive-through experience may be familiar to you too. Did you feel like an important cog in that establishment’s machine, or like a nameless, faceless number? If you said the latter, you’re in good company. I’ve got another question for you. How would you like your customers and prospects to feel that way when they call your company?

Well, you know what? In many companies, telephone answering skills are clearly lacking among those people paid to—you guessed it—speak to customers on the phone. Customer service representatives, administrative assistants, technical support personnel, and even switchboard operators demonstrate their collective weakness in any of the following ways: 

you can’t hear them, 
you can’t understand them, 
they cut you off when transferring you, 
they put you on indefinite hold, 
they pass the buck to another person or department to solve your problem, 
they provide misleading or errant information, and 
they can be downright rude. 

When any of the aforementioned telephone faux pas’ occur, you can bet that your existing customers will be anywhere from annoyed to fuming mad and your prospects will belong to someone else. As the cliché but true saying goes, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” What to do? Here are five basic suggestions for how your people should behave on the telephone.

Speak Clearly. This is so obvious and yet so ignored. How many times have you called a company and not even understood the first sentence that came across the telephone line? That’s because people answer the phone with a memorized, patented line, often the name of their department within the company. My brother works for the United States Securities and Exchange Commission. I still have no idea what department, because every time I call him at the office I hear the receptionist pick up the telephone and within 1/10 of a second am greeted with something akin to “macherup.” This may be short for “Market Representation”, but I can’t be sure. Since she knows the phrase by heart, it comes out extremely fast and jumbled together. 

At your company, remember that the listener may have been forwarded to you from God knows where. His mind won’t be accustomed to your pat reply, so speak slowly, loudly and distinctly. Put the phone receiver to your mouth before you begin speaking, not as soon as you pick up. This prevents your voice from fading in to the ear of the caller. If you’re providing information that the caller is probably writing down, such as the extension of another person who can help her out, slow down even further to allow her time to mentally receive the information and transfer it to her pencil.

Identify Yourself and the Organization. None of this stuff is splitting the atom, folks, and here’s proof. No matter who you are, if you deal with the outside world through the incoming phone call, always make sure the first words out of your mouth are, “Hello, this is Karl Walinskas of the Customer Service Department” or a similar phrase. Tell the customer who you are with both first and last name. Spell it out if the caller is confused. That person may need to reference his call with you later, so be sure that he knows who you are. 

Notice that the bullet says to ID your organization. If you’re the switchboard operator, you represent the entire company and therefore reference the company name. If most calls to you are forwarded from the company operator, you represent your department or functional area, so use that name. This is important because it lets the caller know that he has reached the correct area to solve his problem. If not, he knows immediately. More than once I’ve been talking to “Mike” about the new Craftsman socket set for three minutes when suddenly he says, “Excuse me sir. This is Sporting Goods. You need the hardware department.”

Get the Caller’s Information. Guess what? No matter how good you are, you may not be able to address the caller’s problem on the spot. That leaves two possible choices: you can either transfer that person to the party that can help out now, or you will have to get back to him. After you give the customer or prospect information about you, give him an opportunity to tell his story. If he doesn’t tell you who he is, wait for him to catch his breath and ask for his name and, if appropriate, telephone number. Do this as early in the telephone conversation as possible. Why? You may accidentally get cut off from transferring or putting the call on hold. It’s your responsibility to call back, and it makes your company look like it really cares, which of course, it should.

If you do have to transfer the call, don’t just send someone into a black hole of voice mail by forwarding the call without checking if the end party is in the office. Politely place the caller on hold and locate the associate who can help out. Tell her who the caller is and what he wants so that she can be prepared and sound intelligent. This prevents the awkward and frustrating moment when the caller has to repeat all his information to someone else. If the right person isn’t available, you can take a detailed message for her and kindly tell the caller that she will get back to him.

Take Responsibility for the Problem. If you are taking a call from a customer or prospect that has a question or problem, surprise the hell out of him by making sure the buck stops with you. You may not be able to respond appropriately to the caller’s needs on the spot, but with a little research, you can. Take the bull by the horns and promise to get back to him with an answer—and then really do it! If you have to forward the caller to someone else, ensure that that person can help out. If you’re not certain, tell the customer to please call you back if he’s not completely satisfied with the answer to his question.

Why is this so important? Many times people who call your company are lacking information. They may not know your procedures, your company, or your industry. They are looking for a hero—one person who they can deal with who will provide them with the information they need. Let that person be you. It will go a long way to building your personal reputation as well as that of your company.

Be Polite. Always remember and never forget, customers rarely call the company to tell you how pleased they are with you. This is particularly true for Customer Service and Technical Support personnel. Part of your job is to have a cast iron jaw and take some shots from a whining, complaining consumer. Don’t take it personally. The caller is usually taking his frustrations about your product or your company out on you, simply because you happen to be listening. Let him vent, then respond with courtesy and empathy. Calmly restate the caller’s issues in your own words and ask for verification that you’ve got it right. You will be amazed how fast irate people will settle down, sometimes even thanking you for your understanding. Human beings respond in-kind—we can’t help it. Talk to incoming callers as you would talk to a friend who confides in you and you’ll win them over.

Even though websites and email are becoming rapidly integrated into modern business today, plenty of customers and prospects will call your company to obtain information and resolve disputes. The person who picks up the phone will set the tone of your company in the mind of that caller. Make sure that you’re sending the right message.

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