In the past year, I’ve had several things come up that required me to call a lot of people, or call one company in particular, on a regular basis for about a month. If you’re working the phones and I’m calling, I guarantee you that I will be the highlight of your working day. I don’t moan, I don’t swear, I don’t hang up, I don’t make demands – I’m happy to sit on hold for a while, and listen to you while you’re talking. The reason for this is that I know that working the phones must be one of the least desirable jobs at any company, ever.
Why? Well, it’s not because the actual job isn’t enjoyable, most of the time (telemarketing certainly seems to maintain its own personal circle of hell). It’s mostly because the vast majority of human beings have no concept of how to talk to other people over the telephone. Interrupting, being rude, demanding, impatient, too casual, or not casual enough are all obstacles between you and a caller being friends, and you and a caller never speaking again as far as your business is concerned.
Funnily enough, you want people to like calling you.
So how do we go about solving this, and what are the different approaches to phone conversation?
The Call Centre
If you run a call centre, and some of you might, then you’ll know that your employees are going to have to deal with a lot of people who will likely be extremely impatient because they know they’re calling a customer service line, which will set them against you from the moment they pick up their phone to dial your number. The secrets to keeping them happy are as follows:
- Don’t transfer them around endlessly. Really, don’t, because it implies that none of your staff have any idea who the ideal problem-solver is, and if your phone line is an 0800 or similar, you’re wasting someone’s money because your staff aren’t trained to use the right tool – or person – for the job. Not a good impression to make.
- Meet demand. If you constantly experience a high amount of call traffic, hire more staff. If you’re worried about the cost, then charging for customer service lines will outweigh the cost of your new customer service employee (ironic, given that they’re the psychosocial equivalent of fire-fighters). If you can’t figure out supply and demand but you own a call centre, it might be time for you to take a course in basic business management.
- Be free? It’s not the cheapest option in the world, sure, but what it lacks in revenue it makes up for in a group of customers who know that they’re not paying to listen to your hold music.
That’s just a start, but I’d advise you to remember the purpose of a call centre is to help people. If you can’t do that, go into politics.
The Direct Client Call
It’s five twenty-five, and a client rings to talk about an upcoming deadline just as you’re hunting around for your coat. Do you ignore it? Do you answer and be brief? Or do you make the effort? Pro tip: the first two are the wrong answer, but only to a point. If this is the tenth time today a client has rung you (i.e. they’re control freaks), let it run to answerphone. But otherwise, pick up, and take the time to talk to them and ask them what they need and how you can help.
I’m a writer, so I tend to call people quite a lot to ask them a lot of things, like “can I interview you,” or “where is [editor name here]?” It doesn’t help to repeatedly have my calls ignored, or have someone tell me they’ll call me when they’re ready, despite the fact that we both know that not answering my questions now means we will both miss a key deadline. If you have gone to the effort of offering a client your desk phone number, answer your calls. Unless you’re in a meeting (and don’t always be “in meetings”, it doesn’t make the caller feel very important) or on the phone already, deal with it now so you’re not having to deal with it at five twenty-five.
Common Sense Isn’t Here Right Now, If You’d Like to Leave a Message…
Fundamentally, phones are still your lifeline. You’ll still get tens of thousands of emails, I’m sure, but having a human being who can talk sense and give people the right information is still a requirement in 2012. That is, until they attach Microsoft Sam to an artificial intelligence, but by that stage I’d wager we’ll be too busy running away from killer robots a la Terminator to worry too much about whether or not customer #412937292 is still on the line.
If you have a decent phone network set up, then good for you – it’s going to save you a lot of hassle in the long run. But if there’s no number on your site, and only the receptionist seems to have a phone, then you might be going about your office communications set-up the wrong way. Pick up, or pack up.