When you're working in customer support, you know that answering phone calls becomes the bread and butter of your position. A frontline worker typically is hired for their strong communication skills.

While it may seem obvious — just pick up the phone and say "Hello?" — answering professional calls are very different from answer personal calls. It's easy to slip up and accidentally speak to your customer the way you would to your best friend or mother.

However, by following the rules below, you can ensure you're always on your A-game in the call center.

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1. Answer a call within three rings.

If your position entails always being available to callers, you should actually be available. That means staying focused and answering calls immediately. The last thing you want to do is keep a customer waiting after a string of endless ringing or send them to voicemail when you should've been able and ready to reply.

As long as you're alert and at your phone at all times — excluding breaks — this rule should be fairly simple to follow. However, we recommend responding within three rings in order give yourself enough time to get in the zone and prepare for the call. Picking up the phone right away might leave you flustered.

2. Immediately introduce yourself.

Upon picking up the phone, you should confirm with the person whom they have called. In personal calls, it's sufficient to begin with a "Hello?" and let the caller introduce themselves first. However, you want to allow the caller to know if they've hit a wrong number, as well as whom they are speaking with.

Practice answer the phone with, "Hi, this is [Your first name] from [Your company]. How can I help you?" Your customer will be met with warmth, which will encourage a positive start to your call. And, if it ends up being an exasperated college student trying to order pizza, they'll at least appreciate your friendliness.

3. Speak clearly.

Phone calls, while a great option for those who detest in-person interaction, do require very strong communication skills. For one, the person on the other end of the line can only judge you based on your voice, since they don't get to identify your body language and — hopefully — kind smile.

You always want to speak as clearly as possible. Project your voice without shouting. You want to be heard and avoid having to repeat yourself. A strong, confident voice can make a customer trust you and your support more. In case of bad cell service or any inability to hear or be heard, immediately ask to hang up and call back.

4. Only use speakerphone when necessary.

We all know the trials of speakerphone. It's easier for you because you can use your hands to multitask. However, for the other caller, it's like trying to hear one voice through a honking crowd of taxis in Manhattan — impossible and frustrating.

Give your customers your full attention, and avoid speakerphone. This will make it easier for both parties to be heard, and it will ensure that you're actually paying attention to them. You may need to use speakerphone at rare occasions, such as when it's a conference call or when you're trying to troubleshoot on the phone. While speakerphone may be appropriate at these times, it's always better to use a headset to remain hands-free.

5. Actively listen, and take notes.

Speaking of paying attention to your customers, it's essential that you're actively listening to them throughout the conversation. Actively listening means hearing everything they have to say and basing your response off of their comments, rather than using a prescribed script. This proves to your customers that you're present and are empathetic to their inconveniences.

It's helpful to take notes during support calls. You'll want to file a record post-conversation, and notes will be immensely helpful. It also ensures that, during long-winded explanations from customers, you can jot down the main points and jump into problem-solving without requiring them to repeat.

6. Use proper language.

A key difference between professional and personal phone calls is obvious — the language. It might be acceptable to use slang and swears when talking on the phone with your friends, but this kind of language can cause you to lose a customer for life.

Always be mindful and respectful when on the phone. You never know what customers might be offended by something you say, so it's best to use formal language. It's okay to throw in humor if appropriate, but never crack a joke that could upset a customer.

7. Remain cheerful.

You never know when a customer is having a bad day. When someone is rude to you on the phone, your immediate reaction may be to put them in your place. First, though, take a moment to step into their shoes and recognize why they're so upset.

The point is to always remain positive and friendly, especially in the face of negativity. Your optimistic outlook may be enough to turn a failing phone call right around. Remind yourself that the last thing your customer probably wanted was to spend their afternoon on the phone with customer support. So, make that call the best it can be, and it may create a loyal, lifetime customer.

8. Ask before putting someone on hold or transferring a call.

There's often nothing more infuriating than being put on hold. After waiting on hold for ten or fifteen minutes to speak with a real-life human being, you finally get to explain your problem. Then, you're immediately put back on hold and then transferred to someone else to whom you must re-explain the whole problem. Talk about exhausting.

However, if you must put a customer on hold or transfer their call, always ask for their permission first. Explain why it's necessary to do so, and reassure them that you — or another employee — are going to get their problem solved swiftly. By keeping your customer in the loop, they'll be less inclined to complain about a long wait time.

9. Be honest if you don't know the answer.

You might need to put a customer on hold or transfer their call if the dreaded occurs — you don't know the solution. Perhaps you've tried everything you can or simply have no idea what they're talking about. Don't panic; customer support representatives are humans, too, and it's okay not to be the omniscient voice of reason.

It's best to admit when you don't know something, rather than making excuses or giving false solutions. However, tell them that you're going to do everything you can to find an answer and get back to them momentarily, or find a co-worker who does know the answer. Customers don't typically expect you to have all the solutions at hand, but they will expect you to be transparent.

10. Be mindful of your volume.

You may be so focused on your phone call with a customer that you're barely paying attention to your present setting. When working in a call center, things can get pretty loud. You always want to be mindful of your volume and ensure that you're not disrupting the ability of your co-workers to speak to customers and get their work done.

If you are on a call that requires you to speak louder due to a bad connection or a hard-of-hearing customer, simply step out of the room and speak with them separately. Your customers are always your main concern, but you don't want to inhibit the work ethic of others in your workplace.

11. Check for and respond to voicemails.

It's quite possible that a customer might reach out to you when you're on a break or after you've left work for the day. If it's possible for you to receive voicemails, make sure you're always checking for them. It's easy for a voicemail to slip under the radar, but the customer won't easily forget.

Start and end each day by checking your voicemail. It takes just a few minutes and can avoid a lost customer support request. Your customers will appreciate your prompt response, and you can get on to doing what you do best — providing knowledgeable and friendly support.

These tips should provide you and your team with basic guidelines for phone etiquette and, if executed properly, your company should see significant improvement in customer experience.

However, there will be some interactions where these actions may not be enough to defuse the situation. Some customer interactions will require your team to take special measures to ensure you're meeting the customer's immediate and long-term needs. In the next section, we'll break down a few of these scenarios and what you can do to resolve them.

Customer Service Phone Etiquette

Sometimes you may pick up the phone and immediately have to rebuild a relationship with a customer. These cases should be scarce, but they will happen to even the best customer service teams. It's important to use the correct phone etiquette in these types of cases to produce the most effective outcome for both the customer and the company. To help you prepare, below are a few common challenges that most customer service reps will face when working on the phone.

1. The customer is asking you to do something that you can't.

The only "downside" to providing great customer service is that sometimes your customers expect too much from you. When you're constantly fulfilling their needs they may ask you to do something that you simply don't have the power to do, or is against your company's policy. Often times they're not making a malicious request, but rather the customer thinks your team is so effective it can provide an advanced service.

In these cases, you should do your best to reset expectations for the customer regarding what your service team can and can't do. It helps if you can provide the customer with a document or knowledge base article that outlines your policy and answers any additional questions customers may have. While you should be able to explain your company's policy on your own, offering a standardized document helps build credibility for your argument. The customer knows you're not making up this response on the spot and there's a reason for why you can't perform the requested action.

2. The customer insists on staying on the phone until their problem is resolved.

Customers are dedicated to reaching their goals and some will do nearly anything to achieve success, even if that means staying on the phone until they get their way. This motivation can sometimes lead to stressful situations where customers become agitated because a rep can't perform a specific action. These cases are rare but they will happen, especially if your product is imperative for customer success.

The best measure to take in these cases is to provide proactive customer service. Pay attention to cues in the customer's tone and vocabulary that would indicate frustration or stress. Then prevent escalation by acknowledging the roadblock as well as how the problem impacts the customer's workflow. This demonstrates to the customer that you have been actively listening to their request and are aligned with their goals.

If you can't defuse the situation, the next best step is to initiate a follow up plan. Let the customer know that you would like to look into the issue further and would like to follow up via their preferred contact method. If the customer is resistant to getting off the phone, explain how you need to get in touch with internal references who can assist you with the issue. Make it clear that it's in the customer's best interest to hang up the phone and follow up at a later time. If that's not possible, contact your manager immediately to intervene with the situation.

3. The customer is demanding to speak with a manager.

Many customers think that demanding to speak with management will help resolve their case faster. In actuality, customer service managers dictate the company's stance on customer service issues and will echo the rep's initial response if it's in accordance with their policy. This can lead to poor customer experiences as customers will feel like the company has failed to meet their individual needs.

Instead of escalating to your manager, try to handle the case on your own. You can certainly ask your manager for advice but make sure they're not actively participating in the conversation with the customer. The moment you bring in your manager you're actively admitting to the customer that you can't solve their issue on your own.

Sometimes customers will demand outright to speak with your manager. For these cases we recommend implementing a one strike rule, meaning if a customer asks to speak with your manager then you have one chance to prevent the escalation. Confidently tell the customer that their best chance of resolving the issue is with your help and outline the steps you're going to take to assist them. If that doesn't work, ask to follow up with management at a later time or directly connect them with your manager.

4. The customer doesn't understand your explanation.

Phones are great for providing immediate support for simple and easy-to-fix issues but they can be tricky to work on when cases become more complex. Both you and the customer have to keep track of important case details to ensure you're on the same page throughout the troubleshooting process. In these cases, it's easy for customers to misinterpret information and become confused about the steps you're recommending. Even if you're providing detailed troubleshooting steps, your in-depth explanation may be too advanced for the customer's level of product knowledge.

For these scenarios, leverage customer service tools that can help clarify your explanation. Tools like screenshares and virtual assistants provide hands-on support and guide customers through each step of the troubleshooting process. This way you can ensure they're following your recommendations properly and answer any questions that have at that moment.

If you don't have access to these types of tools, there are plenty of free options available for your team. Check out this complete list of free help desk software that your team can use for its troubleshooting efforts.

5. The customer is keeping you on the phone for too long.

Customers value their time, but so do customer service reps. Most reps have a case quota that they need to reach every day and will fall short if they get stuck on a lengthy call. When you're dealing with 30+ calls each day, you can't afford to be bogged down by an hour-long call. This presents you with a tricky challenge of meeting customer needs as well as your own career goals.  

While you should give each customer your utmost attention and dedication to their problem, be mindful of how long you're on the phone with a customer. When you're no longer making any significant progress on the case, ask to follow up with them. Explain why you need to follow up and how this will lead to a faster resolution. This measure not only helps you reach your daily goals but will proactively demonstrate that you're being mindful of the customer's time.

For more information about improving customer service, read this post on customer service tips for startups.

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Originally published Apr 24, 2019 4:58:42 PM, updated October 07 2019

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Customer Service