Business Phone Etiquette 101

Aug 13, 2009

Poor phone skills can cost your shop big bucks. Making sure you- and your employees- are trained to handle customers over the phone can make a difference when customers are deciding which shop to trust with their dream car.

A business owner knows there are quite a few factors that need to be considered to make their business a success.

For example, they must have a user-friendly Web site, skilled employees and a marketing plan to get the word out that the business exists.

What many don’t know, however, is that a small thing such as how they treat customers on the phone can sometimes be the difference between securing a job or having it go to their competitor.

“Your goal is to get your customers to keep talking,” said Bob Phibbs of The retail doctor.com. “They are not an interruption, but evidence that your marketing is working. [Employees] who are untrained [on the phone] are likely to cost you big sales. Good phone etiquette is the determining factor for whether most people will do business with you again.”

The Bottom Line

Your mother always told you to be nice. This is sound advice, not just in your personal life, but professionally as well.

“For so many small businesses, the telephone is the primary tool for customer interaction,” said Alan J. Braverman, a communications professional with Braverman Communications, Inc. “Aside from a Web site, most small businesses have to rely on telephone interaction to make the sale. It’s important to remember that talking on the phone for business is not the same as catching up with a buddy.”

Small business consultant Gene Fairbrother agreed. “For any business, the professional image they present is one of their most important marketing tools. Good telephone etiquette adds to sales. Being responsive to customer needs, being professional, being courteous, all [account] for motivating people to do business with you and continue to do business with you.”

Your competition is only a phone call away. Don’t give your customers a reason to call them.

“Good telephone manners help maintain your customer base. If you turn someone off, remember there is always an alternative for them to turn to for their needs,” said Jeff Sloane, author of StartupNation: Open for Business. “If you maintain a good rapport with the customer, you will benefit by getting their repeat business as well as by the positive word of mouth advertising they will do for your business.”

Our experts offered some tips on how to handle common phone situations.

Customers on Hold

The last thing you want to do is be rude to your customers, but many times that’s what businesses do when they don’t handle putting them on hold correctly.

Although it may sound like a small thing to consider in the big scheme of doing business, it can really establish a good impression with the customer who is on the phone.

“Always ask the caller if you may put them on hold,” said Braverman. “The answer will usually be ‘yes,’ but people like to be asked. Make sure, though, that you’re not going to be placing them on hold too often.”

Music can soothe the savage beast, and we all know that customers can, at times, be beastly.

“Music on hold is always a nice touch,” added Sloane. “I recommend upbeat and fun music, but not music that might be too loud or too rock ‘n’ roll for your demographic. And most importantly, you must get back on the phone every 30 seconds if the caller is required to continue to hold. Do not leave a caller wondering if someone is going to return to the call.”

If you aren’t able to return to the phone with the information the customer asked for, or if you aren’t able to devote the time needed to properly handle the call, it is better to take the caller’s name and number and ask them if you may call them back, rather than leave them on hold.

They will appreciate your honesty, and more importantly, will not feel that you wasted their time.

Ending a Phone Call

Many small business owners don’t take into consideration the end of a phone call.

According to Phibbs, the company representative that is handling the call should always ask the caller if all of their questions have been answered and thank them for calling the business before hanging up.

Braverman also commented on the importance of the tail end of the call. “Nothing beats a simple ‘thank you.’ If there are action items that resulted from the call, go over them before signing off. Like any conversation with a customer, you want to be clear about expectations and next steps.”

As Phibbs put it, “Remember, last words linger.

Getting to the Phone

Most small shops run with an equally small staff, so getting to the phone can be a challenge.

To combat this problem, many shops turn their answering machines on during business hours and wait for the caller to leave a message.

Phibbs discourages this practice, as it may end up costing you a job.

“Think about it,” he said.

“When was the last time you called for a plumber and got an answering machine? Did you leave a message and wait or did you call someone else? Most businesses are no different- customers will call around until they get a person to answer their inquiry,” he said.

The business owner should designate one person in the shop, perhaps even himself, to handle all phone calls. Even if that person is busy, they should at least come to the phone and get a basic understanding of what the caller needs.

However, all employees, regardless of their job title, should be trained to handle a phone call if they need to.

Phibbs added that the call also needs to be answered in a timely fashion.

“Our attention span has gotten very short,” he said. “After three rings we wonder if anyone is there. The longer we wait as customers, the less inclined we are to be nice to the person at your business.”

Keeping a phone in the work area (if the business doesn’t have a receptionist) is key to making sure the caller doesn’t hang up before you get to the phone.

Listen to Your Customers

Ed Fries, owner of Rhino Linings of North County in San Marcos, California said he always puts his customers’ needs first.

“You need to become attuned to how your customer is talking or how they are asking you questions,” he said. “Listen to what they are asking, but also how they are asking because some people keep calls short and sweet and you cannot get into a conversation. With other callers you can. Just take time to listen. By being yourself and informative but not overbearing, they’ll make an appointment.”

Finally, Sloane summed up why phone manners matter.

“Supreme customer service is the most important way for small businesses to compete effective,” he said. “When speaking with a customer, good phone etiquette is important because the contact will formulate an opinion of you and your business based on the experience he or she has during the conversation.”

“Even when the going gets rough on a phone call, you must maintain your composure,” he added. “Remember: the customer is always king!”

Five Tips for Handling Phone Calls

Alan J. Braverman, a communications professional for Braverman Communications, Inc. offered five tips for conducting a successful phone call.

1. Smile. Whenever you pick up the phone for an incoming call, pause for a moment and smile. As strange or silly as that may sound, the person you’re talking to will hear it in your voice, and your conversation will get off to a positive start.

2. Be prepared. If a customer calls, there’s nothing wrong with asking them if you could put them on hold for a moment to prepare yourself. Take out any notes or other materials you may need to reference during the conversation. It is better for the customer to wait on hold for a minute than to hear you rummaging through your desk to find the papers you need to answer their questions.

3. Do not multi-task. No matter what you’ve heard or read, no one is capable of truly multi-tasking, and it should definitely not be attempted while you are taking something as important as a potential customer’s phone call. Do not fall into the trap of being momentarily distracted. Move away from your computer, glance up from your work orders and go somewhere without distractions from employees or other customers to handle the call.

4. Close your eyes. If you find your mind wandering, close your eyes. When you do, everything else goes away. You’ll be able to focus on the caller’s voice, and your mind will become much more focused on the issue at-hand.

5. Take notes. A telephone call is the same as an in-person meeting. In all likelihood, there will be action items and other “to dos” that require follow-up. These notes will become invaluable when you are following up on the call and are having trouble remembering all of the details that were discussed.