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How to Talk to Customers: When a Phone Call Is Better Than an Email

For many of us working in customer support and customer success, email is one of our primary modes of communication. Its benefits are numerous:

  • It allows us to exchange information efficiently while balancing multiple priorities and customers.
  • Unlike a phone or in-person conversation, email’s asynchronous nature provides the opportunity to provide a more thoughtful response to a question than one we could otherwise offer on the fly.

But knowing when to make the shift from our default -- email -- to the phone is an important skill for customer teams.

How to Talk to Customers: When Is a Phone Call Better Than an Email?

There are three big reasons why a phone call beats email sometimes:

1) We have relatively few true conversations with customers.

Not only that, but we also infrequently meet them in person (outside of the occasional conference). This gives us a limited opportunity to build trust, which is the backbone of any relationship.

2) Over email, we lack the ability to assess any behavioral cues.

Verbal communication provides the opportunity to assess urgency, display empathy, and strike the proper tone, which can have an influence on building trust. Video conferencing tools like Zoom make the experience that more human, too.

3) Email prevents a real-time, back-and-forth flow of information.

If a customer is struggling with a service issue, chances are there is some form of miscommunication going on. The ebb-and-flow of a phone conversation provides opportunities for discovery and developing creative solutions to customer problems. And sometimes you can fix the darn problem in real time via a screen share.

When Should You Take a Conversation to the Phone?

When customers are dealing with a service issue.

When your product isn’t working, whether it’s your fault or the customer’s does not matter. Customers rely on your product to do their jobs and the issue needs to be resolved ASAP -- email rarely cuts it in these situations.

How to Move from Email to the Phone

Pick up the phone and call them.

Seriously, you don’t always have to request time by email and sometimes people actually pick up.

If you need to schedule time by email, keep it short:

"Could you find time for a 5–10-minute conversation? I want to be sure I have all the context so I can make the best determination as to how to proceed."

Suggest that a phone call will speed the resolution:

"I think a quick conversation would help us come to a resolution more quickly. Can you hop on the phone for 5 minutes this afternoon?"

In the event that you can’t get the customer on the phone, or they simply refuse to speak with us, here are a few tips to managing the situation:

  • Again, pick up the phone and call them. They may not answer, but you can effectively display the proper tone in a voicemail. Follow up that voicemail with an email.
  • Call them again. One voicemail does not convey the proper level of urgency.
  • Push back on resistance to a phone call. Reinforce that a phone call will actually speed the resolution.

If an email exchange goes back and forth more than once, and if the tone appears heated, keep trying to move the conversation towards the phone.

If frustration is still high, and if the customer is unwilling to speak by phone, or email communication is becoming inefficient or escalating, it might be time to escalate to your manager.

Studies have shown that negotiators reach better outcomes when they have had a phone call -- as short as five minutes -- before the start of negotiations because of the level of trust and understanding you develop in those five minutes.

When you have a difficult situation to manage or message to convey, it’s always better to start by phone.

A version of the blog post originally appeared on ThinkGrowth.org.

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