On the line: The first impression counts


114854350-1John Genge gives some advice on phone manner and how it can improve your customers’ attitude to and confidence in your business.

All of us as consumers make enquiries and contact businesses to discuss our needs. Often this is by telephone and the initial few seconds of the call will determine our attitude to that business, our confidence in them and our desire to give them or not give them, our custom.

However many businesses assume that any member of staff can handle this routinely without any training, processes or structure. This is a dangerous assumption to make and if you take the time to call a few garages and small factors, you will soon see how inconsistent the quality of response is.

Larger businesses will have dedicated staff to answer the phone but smaller ones will struggle to justify the cost, as it’s all hands to the pump. Answering the telephone is relatively simple and can be achieved easily, and those skills can be kept permanently.

  • Attitude: When the phone rings it is not an interruption but someone wanting to spend money with you. Treat it that way, and answer it quickly.
  • Smile: When you answer the phone don’t sigh or exhale. Try smiling. You will be amazed how much the smile can be heard at the other end.
  • Clear and to the point: I’m not an advocate of these long meaningless monotonous introductions but rather a short enthusiastic one, such as ‘CAT Motors. I’m John. How can I help?’
  • Listen don’t interrupt: A customer will normally take 10 -20 seconds to make clear their requirements. Listen carefully and only speak to clarify points.
  • Record the information: Obtain and record the customer’s name and if possible a contact number. Thank them for this information and remember to confirm that you have their requirements and agree the next step.

That’s all it takes. The next step may be to pass this to a colleague, obtain further information and return the call, book the appointment or give a price.

On the latter, never apologise. I have heard so many poor responses such as ‘I’m afraid that’s going to cost you….’ normally preceded by a sigh or sharp intake of breath. Never apologise or assume that the customer will think it’s expensive just because you do.

But the question still remains: Any call can interrupt someone working, disturb their train of thought and potentially affects their efficiency at whatever they are doing. Does it make better sense to have a dedicated person to handle all the calls?

There is no simple answer as it depends on the size of the business and the frequency of these calls. With a business employing a dozen or so staff it is likely that there is sufficient justification to consider such a person. However, with smaller staff it becomes harder to justify.

You could use scientific methods such as call frequency, profit per enquiry and call conversion ratio, but in my experience, for smaller businesses, these vary so much that any measurement is pretty unreliable. The other problem is that even with a dedicated person, they will have holidays, lunch breaks and other absences. Part-timers are a better option especially if their duties can be combined with other activities such as book keeping and reception duties. However, in reality you still need to know that anyone who is capable of answering the phone is trained and encouraged to do so.

Another good idea is actually to see if you can cut the number of unnecessary incoming calls, by suggesting you will call them back at a certain time rather than wait until they ring. It also gives a more professional impression.

Most businesses aren’t open 24/7, so you will get callers when you are closed. The quality and tone of your recorded greeting will determine whether or not anyone leaves a message and the chance to get their business. So, prepare your script, practice it, clearly and patiently record it and get as many people as you can to listen to it. And since many people don’t like talking to machines, make it as lifelike as possible.

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