Telephone Skills

by Babs Moore

Projecting a professional image

Given the chance, most of us would prefer to project a professional image. To achieve this image, you not only need to get the mechanics right, you also need to convey the right attitude and a sense of engagement.

Monologue versus dialogue

The telephone is an excellent means of communicating, but communication is a two-way process. A good telephone professional will be sensitive to the person on the other end and ensure that both parties have time to speak and make their points, without rambling. They will use listening skills and empathy to sense the mood of the other person and will modify their behaviour accordingly. If you are in sales mode, it is important to allow potential customers time to think and ask questions rather than just listen to a monotonous sales pitch. If you are in customer service and a caller wants to rant, they should be allowed to do so for a short while to ease their frustration, after which the call needs to be moved on to a conversation about how to resolve the situation.

Checking understanding

Your professional image will be enhanced if you demonstrate that you have understood what the person on the other end of the line is saying through summarising and checking back with them. It is far better to take the time required to do this than to leave any potential misunderstanding unresolved, possibly allowing problems to fester and reappear in the future.

Efficient but friendly

A professional telephone user keeps to the point of the conversation and ensures that a call is friendly and efficient. An element of more general conversation can help set the scene for the call and develop relationships (for example, a comment about last night’s football might be appropriate if the person on the other end is a fan), but for a business call the core subject should be the main focus of the call and should occupy 90 per cent plus of the call’s time.

Clarity on the telephone

A professional telephone voice is clear and just a fraction slower than in normal conversation. Remember, the person cannot see you to pick up those extra visual clues as to what is being meant, so clarity is essential. If you are speaking to someone who is a non-native English speaker, the pace should be reduced slightly, especially if you can sense that they are having any difficulty in understanding. In these circumstances, slang or colloquial English should not be used. This is also true of regional language/expressions with which the person on the other end is unlikely to be familiar. For professionalism and clarity, take care with humour and use conventional English.

Leaving voicemails and messages

You will immediately enhance your professional image if you make the recipient’s life easier by leaving a clear concise message. A voicemail or message should always include your name, company and contact details, together with the reason for the call. If a call back is not required, or you would prefer to call back yourself, then include that additional information.

Remember who you are representing

A professional telephone user will never allow frustration with internal company matters affect the way they use the telephone and the image they portray. Internal issues are just that; internal. However frustrated you may feel with a colleague’s actions (for example, their persistent refusal to take calls or failure to return them) this must not be allowed to show.

Take an interest in the caller

People feel more valued when someone takes an interest in them and their needs. Even if the call has been put through to you by mistake, the customer will feel much better if you take an interest in them and ensure the call is correctly handled.

Preparation

Preparation is key to presenting a professional image, whether it is an outgoing or incoming call. Good preparation gives you a greater degree of control over the call, enabling you to gain the maximum benefit from it.

Automated menus

These are becoming increasingly popular, especially in circumstances where a high degree of telephone traffic needs to be directed to the correct departments. In theory, automated menus should provide a very professional service, with calls being quickly connected to right person.

In practise, few people appreciate having their call answered by a machine and many have bad experiences of going through a succession of menus and still not managing to locate an individual who can actually answer their question.

Telling customers ‘Thank you for holding, your call is important to us and an operator will be with you shortly’ for 15 minutes or more does not project a professional image. It is probably a very cost-effective way of handling calls, but think carefully about how customers feel about having their calls answered by a machine. You should also take care to monitor the percentage of calls being lost or even, despite the menus, ending up with the wrong department.