You may have the best sales team in the country, but what happens when your customer service department isn’t as good? I have seen great sales experiences go south just from a lousy telephone customer-service experience.

Michael O'GradyCustomers call your company often. Sometimes it’s to book an appointment for service or sales, sometimes they need to ask you a question, and other times it’s to make a complaint. Here are some helpful hints to help guide your customer service department toward top-notch service.

Rule #1: Smile

Have you ever heard that you should smile when talking on the phone? Can you even really “hear” someone smile on the other side of the phone? Of course you can. You can hear it in their tone, the words they choose to use, the pace of their conversation, and other cues.

It’s very difficult to be rude when you are smiling in a friendly nature. It clearly changes the tone of your voice. It takes only 17 muscles in your face to smile, but 43 to frown — get the point?

The best time to smile is before a phone call is answered. If you or your customer-service staff isn’t friendly before a call is answered, it may be too late to offer the best service possible once the conversation has begun.

Rule #2: Use Buffer Words

When you approach a new person at a social or business event, do you offer your hand and say, “nice to meet you” and tell them your name? This is a pretty customary social greeting that sets the pace for a good conversation. This greeting has what we call buffer words, which help warm the relationship.

In business, buffer words should be used on all customer phone calls. They should precede and set up the most important part of the greeting, which, in most cases, is the company or department name.

Here are some sample buffer words on customer calls:

“Good morning;”
“Good afternoon;”
“Thanks for calling;” and
“Happy holiday.”

Words like these should be used on every call in an authentic, sincere tone. It will set your greeting in a friendly tone and warm your customer relationships.

Rule #3: Five Forbidden Phrases

A customer-service expert known as the Telephone Doctor conducted a national survey to find the most common phrases that annoyed people. He collected data across the country, from New York to California, from Texas to Minnesota.

He acknowledged five specific phrases to avoid. In their place, he used the recommended phrases instead, noting that a company could gain immediate, positive results in lieu of the commonly used misnomers.

Forbidden: “I don’t know.”

Recommended: “Gee, that’s a good question. Let me check and find out.”

Forbidden: “Just a second.”

Recommended: “It may take me a few minutes to get that information. Are you able to hold while I check on that?”

Forbidden: Saying “no” at the start of a sentence.

Recommended: Eliminating the word altogether — especially at the start of a sentence.

Forbidden: “We can’t do that.”

Recommended: “That’s a tough one. Let me see what I can do.”

Forbidden: “You’ll have to ...”

Recommended: “What you’ll need to do ...”

Rule #4: Angry Callers? Use the ASAP Technique

There are four basic steps to handling an irate caller. Together, the steps make up the ASAP technique:

A: Apologize and acknowledge the caller’s feelings. You will probably spend about 80 percent of your time soothing the caller and about 20 percent actually working on the problem. Acknowledging feelings is the key to customer satisfaction. Use simple phrases like, “I’m sorry the information was incorrect.”

S: Sympathize. Empathize and show your interest in the situation by making statements like, “I don’t blame you for being upset. That’s got to be very frustrating.” Put yourself in the caller’s position; imagine how you would feel if you were calling with the same complaint or problem.

A: Accept responsibility. Every time you answer the telephone on behalf of your company, you accept 100 percent responsibility for the call. You can show this by saying, “Let me see how I can help. My name is Mike. I’m the customer service manager. And I’m speaking with...?” Always introduce yourself. If you have a title, use it to create credibility with your customer. Re-introducing yourself will help speed the rapport-building process.

P: Prepare to help. Indicate that you sincerely care about the customer’s problem. Be sure to use the caller’s name. That usually helps to diffuse any anger. Once you have done this, begin to draw out what happened by asking questions. “Thanks, Mr. Smith. Again, my name is Mike. Let’s see how I can help you.”

Rule #5: Avoid ‘I’m Sorry’

Starting a sentence with, “I’m sorry …” is unnecessary if it’s not your fault. It’s important to apologize when you’re taking responsibility but don’t use it as a universal excuse. It is much more professional, helpful, and positive to say, “The manager you’re looking for is out of the office until Tuesday. Is there something that I can help you with or would you prefer to leave a voice message for the manager?”

Rule #6: Leave a Lasting Impression

You hear so much about making a good first impression, and that is certainly important. But don’t forget that leaving a good, lasting impression is every bit as important.

Closing a call with the phrase, “Uh-huh... OK, bye” leaves a caller with the feeling of casual dismissal; that he or she was not important to you and you were not interested in the call. The caller is left disappointed and annoyed. Instead, try to include some of the conversation in your closing remarks. For instance, “Yes, I understand. I’ll tell Joe and he’ll take care of it. He’s very good. And we do appreciate your call, Mr. Smith. It was good to talk to you; goodbye.” A remark like that leaves a lasting impression.

Here are some other effective phrases to use in closing a phone conversation:

• “Thanks for calling;”
• “Please call again;”
• “We appreciate your call;” and
• “Good talking to you.”

Do not just let the conversation die. Use your personality to express appreciation for being able to serve the caller. It is an important way to ensure that he or she will want to call back.

Publication date: 6/17/2013