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Customer Service 101: Phone Etiquette for Small Businesses

Customer Service 101: Phone Etiquette for Small Businesses
The secret to excellent call center customer service is training and keeping and eye on your staff. / Credit: Phone image via Shutterstock

Running a call center is one of the most challenging, yet rewarding, aspects of managing a business. From taking orders to providing customer support, sticky situations are bound to arise. But how you handle these situations can mean the difference between creating loyal customers and losing business. Whether you have one or two people handling a small contact center, or a large team of call center agents, it all starts with the right training. And good customer service starts the moment agents pick up the phone.

"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 at communications and phone training company ConsulTel.

Training, however, is never ending. To ensure quality customer service, business owners and the management team also 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." [How to Deal with Call Center Disasters (Before They Happen)]

To start, Goodman provided the following phone etiquette tips on the do's and don'ts of call center customer service for small businesses.

1. Consistency is key.

Have everyone answer the business line consistently. If it's an in-bound call, all the customer wants to know is that they got the right number. Your "hello" should be brief. Train staff to mention 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 really, really hard to do this, but make sure that your team is trained 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 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 amongst yourselves. Clients may hear things you don't want them to hear.

4. Then get to know the transfer button.

If you transfer someone to another member of the team, know how to do it. And then 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 you'll be a while. For instance, say, "It will take me about three to four minutes to get Jane up to speed, so can I please put you on hold?"

Most people will say yes. Then Jane has to answer the phone with some knowledge of the problem. She can't then start all over from square one.

5. Keep customers informed.

It's very, very important to train your team on this. They have to give the client a list of what they're going to do, then a time frame that is longer 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 totally 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. And I'll call you when it's here." 

And then follow through. If you encounter a problem that slows down your schedule, call or email so your client knows you are on top of it. This simple verbal system of handling problems will increase your customer loyalty tenfold. When you solve a problem, all your customers tell their friends you're great.

6. Smile when you talk to customers.

We all know you can hear a smile, 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 over a phone are much more important 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 truly 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.

Originally published on Business News Daily.

Sara Angeles

Sara is a tech writer with a background in business and marketing. After graduating from UC Irvine, she worked as a copywriter and blogger for nonprofit organizations, tech labs and lifestyle companies. She started freelancing in 2009 and joined Business News Daily in 2013. Follow Sara Angeles on Twitter @sara_angeles.