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Customer Service 101: Phone Etiquette for Small Businesses

Sammi Caramela
Sammi Caramela

Phone etiquette is essential to maintaining customer satisfaction and representing your brand professionally. Here's what small business owners should know about managing the phone lines.

  • Customer service over the phone matters a great deal to customer satisfaction and your brand's professionalism.
  • Customer service requires etiquette that is often unspoken but always expected by your customers.
  • Outsourcing management of your phone lines to a call center could free up internal resources and boost the quality of your customer service.
  • This article is for small business owners who want to improve their customer service over the phone and are considering outsourcing to a call center or answering service.

A reality of running a small business is being on the phone constantly. Whether you're talking to clients or business partners, correct etiquette is the key to leaving a positive impression on everyone you interact with and letting them know you're a professional.

"If you are the owner of a small business, make sure that everyone who talks to customers on the phone or answers the business line is trained," said Gail Goodman, president of phone service training company PhoneTeacher.

Training, however, is never-ending. Business owners and the management team need to make sure employees consistently apply company phone policies and best practices.

"Your challenge may be that you can't really identify what it is that people should do," Goodman said. "But when you hear something that's wrong, you know it."

What is phone etiquette, and why is it important?

Proper phone etiquette is crucial in the workplace. Your client's first impression of you is often over the phone. How you communicate with them might be the deciding factor in whether you gain or lose the customer

Callers judge your business by the way you interact with them and handle their request or answer their questions. Good communication is key to establishing and maintaining a strong connection with your customers. However, it's often difficult to communicate over the phone, since neither party can pick up on body language or other nonverbal cues. It's important to use your words, tone and professionalism to convey what you are trying to get across. Continuously practice the right etiquette and ensure your staff is adhering to it as well. Consistency is key.

Key takeaway: Your phone etiquette could be the difference between turning a lead into a customer or losing a prospect for good.

Examples of phone etiquette

There are many examples of phone etiquette, but these are a few common ones:

  • Immediately introducing yourself and your business: This is a professional alternative to simply saying "" Introducing yourself and your business will assert your credibility and tell the caller who they are speaking with.

  • Speaking clearly and calmly: It's important for your customers to understand you and not feel rushed. By speaking clearly and calmly, you're also telling them that they have your undivided attention.

  • Listening and taking notes: Rather than rushing a caller, proper etiquette involves listening to their concerns or requests while jotting down any information you deem necessary. That way, you can better help them reach a solution without becoming overwhelmed by the conversation.

  • Remaining cheerful: Your tone will impact how your customers feel while speaking to you. For example, if you speak in monotone or give the impression that you're bored, your customers won't feel heard and might even shut down. If you are friendly and upbeat, they'll feel inclined to reflect that same attitude back to you.

10 phone etiquette tips for businesses

To start, here are 10 phone etiquette tips for call center customer service for small businesses.

1. Be consistent.

Have everyone answer the business line consistently. If it's an inbound call, all the customer wants to know is that they got the right number. Your "hello" should be brief. Train staff to use a professional greeting that mentions the company and then their own names. "How can I help you?" is assumed, so don't waste precious time adding those five words. "Hello, Mary's Mittens, this is Becky" is sufficient.

2. Never interrupt.

Don't interrupt a complaining customer. It can be hard not to do this, but train your team to listen to the whole problem, no matter how long it takes. Even if call center employees will eventually hand off the call to another member of your staff, listening to the whole story is important so the customer feels taken care of.

 

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3. Get to know the hold button.

Does everyone at your company know how to use your phone system? The hold button is your friend. Never put the phone to your chest to muffle the mouthpiece so you can speak among yourselves. Clients may hear things you don't want them to hear.

4. Then get to know the transfer button.

You need to know how to transfer someone to another member of the team. Say to the client, "The best person to handle this is Jane, so I'm going to transfer you." If it's going to take time for you to locate Jane or explain the problem to her, tell the client it'll be a while. For instance, say, "It will take me about three or four minutes to get Jane up to speed, so can I please put you on hold?"

Most people will say yes. Then Jane must answer the phone with some knowledge of the problem, not starting from square one.

5. Keep customers informed.

It's important to train your team on this. They have to give the client a list of what they're going to do, then a longer timeframe than necessary. Why? Because when you fix the problem in less time than you stated, they know you went to bat for them. You'll have a loyal customer at that point. Take longer than you said and they're steaming mad.

For example, say, "Mrs. Smith, here's what I'm going to do. After we hang up, I'll immediately call the supplier. It may take me a day or more until I reach the right person. Then I'm going to tell them I need another widget for you in Emerald Green. The shipment of that to our store may take another week. At that point, I will call you, and you can come pick it up or decide to have me ship it. In the meantime, I'm sending you a return label to send back the damaged item. I am hoping to get a new one for you within two and a half weeks. I'll call you when it's here."

6. Smile when you talk to customers.

Did you know you can hear a smile? Research shows that smiling while speaking on the phone makes a detectable difference in your tone of voice, so make sure that your team sounds happy to talk to customers. If staff members sound dour, it is worse on the phone, since the client does not see body language. Words and inflection are much more important over the phone than in a face-to-face encounter.

7. Learn how to handle angry and abusive people.

First, don't tell someone to calm down. No one wants to sound like a crazy person, but when a client is that mad, they can't help it. It's going to sound counterintuitive, but your customer service person should speak in a slightly louder voice initially if the customer starts out loud. Their words should be reassuring, like "how awful," "you're absolutely right to be upset" or "I can't believe this – how terrible." The client will feel understood. Slowly, the caller's voice will resume normal volume, and the customer service rep should once again mimic the client's volume. Once the customer is quieter, you can use Technique No. 5 to describe how you will solve the problem.

8. Answer after the first few rings.

You never want to let a call go to voicemail. In fact, you should answer within the first few rings rather than keeping a caller waiting. Customers often grow frustrated or even hang up if they are left on the line without assistance for too long. Even if you answer just to put them on hold while you handle another caller, it's better than leaving them hanging with no greeting for minutes at a time.

9. Eliminate background noise.

Background noise is extremely distracting and unprofessional. To eliminate unwanted sounds, make sure you are in a quiet area, like a call box or private office, and don't use the speakerphone. If your typical workspace happens to be too loud, try taking the call elsewhere or asking those around you to lower their voices.

10. Ask questions and take notes.

If you're unsure who exactly the caller is and what they need from you, ask them. Make sure you jot down information like their name, number and company, and understand exactly what they're asking or requesting. For instance, if they're trying to reach someone in the company who is currently unavailable, you'll want to record the message they wish to relay, along with their phone number and full name, so you can deliver it accordingly.

Andreas Rivera contributed to the reporting and writing in this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Sammi Caramela
Sammi Caramela,
Business News Daily Writer
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Sammi Caramela has always loved words. When she isn't writing for business.com and Business News Daily, she's writing (and furiously editing) her first novel, reading a YA book with a third cup of coffee, or attending local pop-punk concerts. She is also the content manager for Lightning Media Partners. Check out her short stories in "Night Light: Haunted Tales of Terror," which is sold on Amazon.