Telephone Skills

by Babs Moore

How to answer the phone

An external call is a door into the company. Callers should be welcomed in the same warm way as a visitor and should be made to feel valued and not as if they are creating an unwelcome interruption.

The first impression many people will have of the company will be the person answering the telephone when they call. First impressions are lasting and thus it is essential to ensure that everyone in the organisation who will be in taking incoming calls has the ability and training to project a positive image of the company.

As stated in the topic on Customer Relations, when an external person is talking with you, you are the company. The way that you handle that call will affect the caller’s perception of your company – and of you.

Company telephone answering policy

Where many people in a company or team are answering the telephone, it may make sense to have a company telephone policy so that all calls are answered in the same way. This helps to establish corporate identity and conveys a consistent and professional image. The challenge is to make the formula sound fresh and welcoming all the time. Too long a message can become a bore to say (and this will be picked up by callers) and painful to listen to. On the other hand, you must include essential information so that the caller knows who they are talking to.

To be effective, it is important that every member of the team follows the guidelines, so a standard which is comfortable for the majority of people to use should be agreed and published. For example, if one person answers with ‘Mills Stephenson and Williams, Denise Moore speaking. How may I help you?’ and another with ‘Good morning, MSW Ltd...’, this can be confusing for the caller.

If you use a greeting such as ‘Good morning, Finchmoore Associates. How may I help you?’, take care that you do not sound insincere in a ‘have a nice day’ sort of way. This applies especially to switchboard operators, whose words can easily end up completely devoid of feeling.

A ‘Good morning’ or ‘Good afternoon’ is important at the beginning of the greeting, because it just gives an essential, though short break, which allows the person calling to realise that the call has been answered, tune in and the hear the company or department name. It is also important in case there is a delay in the connection or the person answering speaks too early, thus cutting off the first word or two. In this case, it is the greeting that is truncated, not the important company name.

If people are unwilling to follow the guidelines, find out why. For example, if the script is too long winded, you may need to amend it; alternatively, you may have to use peer pressure or other management techniques to help impose policy.

How many rings before answering?

This depends very much on the circumstances, but most people would expect a call to be answered after a maximum of five rings. It can be disconcerting if a call is answered instantaneously, before the caller has heard it ring their end, so one to three rings is ideal. Many sales organisations target themselves to answer the majority of calls within three rings. Many calls centres ‘answer’ almost immediately, by means of an automated answering service that gives a series of menu options. This can make the statistics look good, but is frustrating for customers.

In smaller organisations, hunt groups maybe used. Here, if the receptionist is unable to answer, the call moves to the sales desk after three rings, management after three more and so on. This may leave the caller wondering if their call is ever going to be answered, but on the rare occasions that a call goes right through the hunt groups this is better than losing the call.

Internal calls should be answered promptly, within a couple of rings. More rings would be distracting to others in the office, who look up and wonder if you are ever going to answer your call.

However, a slight pause (one to three rings) while you finish the sentence you are writing or the biscuit you are eating would generally be considered acceptable.

External calls

The company name should always be included when answering external calls. If you are operating a switchboard or something similar, it would not normally be necessary to give out your own name, but for direct lines or call centres, it is usually appropriate to identify yourself.

Calls should be answered in a way that is consistent, clear, friendly, professional and not too long-winded. It is easy to tell on the other end of the line if someone feels that the way they have been told to answer the phone is a mouthful.

  • ‘Good morning, this is Streamline Days Ltd. How may I help you?’

Note that phrases such as ‘How may I help you?’ must be said with care and sincerity, if they are not to sound like a flippant and unmeant ‘have a nice day’

  • ‘Good morning, Mary Watson, Streamline Days Ltd.’

This may not need a question at the end; a pause may be all that is required to allow the caller to explain what they want.

Internal calls

Again, a warm positive tone should be used, but it’s not necessary to give the company name, whether this is a call within the company or an external call that is being transferred. You should always identify yourself, however, so the person knows they have dialled correctly. In larger organisations, it may be appropriate to include the name of the department when answering a call.

If you are answering someone else’s call, make it clear you are not the person the caller was expecting. For example, ‘Mary Watson’s phone, John Blair speaking. How may I help you?’

Your own answering techniques

Managers or group leaders should always set an excellent example when answering calls themselves. If the manager looks frustrated that the phone is ringing or snatches at it and answers in a hurried fashion, this will eventually be reflected by the team. Even more importantly, if a company telephone policy is in place, managers must follow it themselves.

Everyone should have personalised introductions planned for both internal and external calls and use them every time to project a professional image. This is, in effect, the equivalent of the handshake at the start of a face-to-face meeting.

Check the availability of others

A professional image will be enhanced if the person answering the calls can sound as informed as possible about the availability of others. The reverse is true when the person has to put the caller on hold, hunt around for information and is then only able to make a vague comment. It is obviously not practical to know where everyone is every minute of the day, but if a company-wide scheduling system is used then more professional and complete answers can be provided. To be able to say ‘John Roberts is in a meeting until lunchtime’ tells someone not to expect a call back immediately and also prepares for the follow-up question as to whether someone else can help. The art is to make sure every caller feels important and valued.

How to transfer calls

Step one is to know how to use the telephone system correctly. Users should know how to transfer calls, how to re-engage with the caller if the person they want to speak to is unavailable or engaged, and how to ensure that no one is left floating in the ether. This will depend on the actual system in place. Users should also receive instruction about any additional features that may be available.

When transferring the call, make sure you get the basic information as to who is calling and where from. After all, depending on the circumstances and the nature of the call, the person for whom the call is intended may not wish to take it. You might, for example, need to protect the purchasing manager from streams of cold callers.

  • Inform the caller that you are transferring them.
  • Next, call through to the person required and pass on the information about the caller.
  • After this, either transfer the call, giving all relevant information, or return to original caller, taking a message or putting them through to voicemail.

Ensure that you have given all the relevant information to the person the call is being transferred to before you put the call through; people do not like having to repeat themselves.

If the caller is not able to speak to the person they’ve asked for, take a message or offer to put them through to voicemail, if available. In general, it is more reliable to leave messages on voicemails than on scraps of paper that might never find their way to the correct desk. It is also more time efficient.

Care should be taken not to offend the caller if someone does not want to take their call. It may not be possible to see over the telephone, but often it is possible to visualise. For example, if I make a call and the person answering repeats my name back to me just a little too loudly, I can sense they are doing this so that my intended recipient knows who is on the telephone. I can then visualise the person making a signal as to whether they want to take the call or not (it just may be inconvenient or they might be avoiding me). This is unprofessional and can be upsetting, so consider using the mute function instead (see below).

Tell the person who is being transferred the name of the person to whom the call is being transferred (if they don’t already know this) and, if relevant, the extension number. In this way, if the call is dropped for any reason, the caller can ring back and try again without having to repeat themselves.

Use of mute (and hold) options

Most telephone systems have a mute function that is rarely used to its full benefit.

It is amazing at times what can be heard down a telephone when it is left on a desk while someone fetches something required for the call or even when a token hand is placed across the mouthpiece in an attempt to muffle comments like ‘It’s Fred from down the road yet again – do you want to speak to him?’

Key tip

Do you want your customers to hear disputes or swearing in the office, someone being rude about another customer or perhaps to realise that another customer is getting a better deal than they are?

Use the mute!

Putting people on hold

No one minds being put on hold for a short time – say, less than 30 seconds – as long as they are told that is what is happening and are not left wondering if something is wrong. A longer hold time may be appropriate if you have explained that the person they want is on the telephone and the caller has agreed to hold, but even so this should be re-verified with the caller at intervals of no more than one minute.

Care in message taking

Poor message taking is unprofessional and can lead to expensive mistakes. Use of voicemail or prepared message pads will help to reduce errors and ensure that the correct information is taken down.

The following information is the minimum required:

  • Name of caller
  • Company of caller
  • Time of call
  • Telephone number of caller
  • Reason for call
  • Specific action required (for example, a call back, perhaps to give information, such as delivery details).

If possible, additional information should be acquired, such as a convenient time for a call back, the degree of urgency of the action and, if urgent, whether someone else could assist. Also, if this is known, the caller should be informed when they may expect a call back (if someone is in training for several hours, for example, the caller should be made aware that return call back will not happen soon).