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Phone Skills

You never get a second chance to make a first impression

You never get a second chance to make a first impression!

So you want to add new customers and increase sales? Viable solutions, such as database software packages, employee training videos, merchandising consultants and advertising reps, stare you in the face daily. These are all fine possibilities, but why spend extra money when you already possess the most valuable business tool available to many businesses -- the telephone?

But like any gold mine, the phone must be worked properly to reap the benefits.


For many customers, the telephone is the first contact they have with a business. As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. And that first impression can either leave customers calling elsewhere, or have them excited about learning more about your products or services.

It has been said that you should smile into the phone when dealing with customers. Don't over do it. A slight grin is all you really need. If you walk away from this article remembering nothing more than the Smile Rule, you've accomplished a great deal. However, another point to remember is that your choice of words, as well as your inflection should "smile." Keep in mind that inflection can convey anger, impatience, condescension, arrogance and boredom just as readily as it can convey a perfect willingness to help in any way possible.

Let's say you call two different businesses to see if they have a certain size of a product you know each carries. Forget about inflection for a moment.

The first business’s salesperson replies to your question with: "Hold on. I'll have to check." Doesn't sound like he's real thrilled about it, does he? It's something that he has to do, implying that he doesn't really want to bother. I have to go to the dentist. I have to do my taxes. The inference is one of unpleasantness.

On the phone at the second company, the salesperson replies to your question with, "Let me check for you. Can you hold a moment?" What are the key words here? First of all the employee has implied that he truly wants to go to work for you and even politely demanded that you let him. Second, he asked if you minded being put on hold (and if he is working the phone correctly, he will wait for your answer and actually hear it). If that salesperson adds the proper smile and the right inflection, you, as a customer, will probably be anxious to work with that business.

Entire business philosophies are based on the concept of answering the phone after no more than three rings, and also not keeping a customer on hold for longer than 10 seconds. While this is nice in theory, it's not always practical. However, with proper practice and patience, you can easily turn a ringing telephone into overwhelming sales.

Some businesses find it necessary to have one person answer the phone, greet customers and do other administrative tasks. Or in the case of a retail environment, answer the phones and act as cashier. This doesn't have to be as difficult and confused as many people make it out to be. Bear in mind that talking on the phone and touching buttons on a machine use two separate parts of your brain.

First learn to isolate those two parts and use them well. For example, the next time you are engaged in a casual phone conversation at home, play with writing a detailed fictional note to yourself at the same time. Try to keep your friend on the other end from knowing what you are doing. If you find that you come across as disconnected and unfocused, keep practicing your multi-tasking.

The best scenario is to practice multi-tasking when it's slow, that way if you run into problems you can easily and professionally interrupt one of your responsibilities. Never allow the telephone interaction to suffer due to multi-tasking, although, once again, you might be faced with another tough choice. Do you focus on the phone conversation and risk having the customers in front of you walk out rather than wait for you to finish, or do you convey to your phone customer that you are distracted and obviously doing something else?

If you must, ask if you can interrupt the telephone customer and put her on hold. Example: "I'm sorry. I hate to do this but do you mind if I put you on hold for a moment? Or I could definitely call you back if you'd like to leave a number." OK, so that's a lot of words to get out when you're swamped, but doesn't it sound better than, "I'm totally swamped here. Can you call back later?" Even if this is said with a smile it usually doesn't come across too well.

Customers are calling on their valuable time. They want to be taken care of with the least amount of hassle. You're lucky they took the time to call you, and if you must inconvenience them, it's up to you to follow up and satisfy their consumer needs. If you know you'll be keeping someone on hold longer than 30 seconds, definitely opt for the call-back option. After you've written down their contact information, repeat it to them, and reiterate that you will call them back.

Keep Your Promise
If you take that name and number, you need to go out of your way to call back later. Hopefully you can do this in a place where you'll be uninterrupted. After all, putting off your customer twice in one day would be rude and annoying. Last holiday season I was on the customer side of things shopping by phone for an expensive item (someone was going to get a lot of my hard earned money). During what must have been a very busy day for each store I called, I received one call-back out of the 12 that were promised.

True, they were all extremely busy, but that one salesperson that kept her promise of calling me back got the sale. If you have five employees, and once a week all five are forced into a situation where they have to promise to call someone back because they are overwhelmed, you can see how their call-backs (or lack thereof) will affect the bottom line during the course of a year.

If you focus on subtle nuances with the telephone, that first impression can go a long way in today's market of increased competition. Use your telephone as the tool it was meant to be, and on a daily basis you'll not only keep scores of long-time loyal customers happy, you'll also finesse a host of new shoppers to do business with your company.

To quote an historical comment from a perplexed onlooker during Alexander Graham Bell's first public demonstration of the telephone: "Interesting idea, but what good will it be?"