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On the Telephone

I was at a book sale recently, and found a few interesting items amongst the familiar fiction. In particular, my attention was captured by a fascinating piece of text in a customer service handbook published in 1989.

Not Sexist, But...

I can't vouch for other sections of the handbook, but fortunately the section I found (Laurie J Murphy, Techniques of Effective Telephone Communication, National Press Publications, 1989) is mostly careful to describe scenarios in reference to groups of customers, so as to be able to use the pronoun 'them', and actually uses 'him or her' on occasions when that is not possible.

Pleasingly, even though the book is almost 30 years old, it does contain some useful hints and tips – telephone calls are still a fact of life, and something I do struggle with, but I learned that a bit of thought can help to improve interactions considerably.

I'm on the Phone

One thing I am acutely aware of from telephone calls I make myself is that it takes 10-30 seconds to 'tune in' to someone's voice on the phone, so if you answer the phone and say something important like the company name during that time, you shouldn't be surprised if the caller has to ask the name later in the conversation. Sadly, in my experience, people often are surprised about that.

Another fascinating fact I learned from reading the book is that people speak at around 180 words per minute, but can listen at the rate of 600 words per minute. That helps to explain why I'm less keen on watching videos to learn things, because I could read about it faster (or even listen speeded up, as screenreader software often allows) but on the telephone I do as the handbook says and take notes to make sure my mind doesn't wander off and miss what the caller is saying.

Cold callers could perhaps learn something from the book as well – many's the time I've been asked 'How are you today?', which, as the book says, just sounds trite and boring and makes people put the phone down as quickly as possible. Getting to the point of the call promptly is described as more effective.

A very useful tip I learned was about giving callers control, so as to help them to become satisfied customers. Many's the time I've had to play 'pass the parcel' when the switchboard puts someone through to me by mistake, so I have to find which department to put a caller through to and it often leads to unpleasant interactions as people became frustrated. However, by telling the caller what is going to happen, they feel more in control of the situation. It is also helpful to ask if they are happy to be put on hold, or whether they would prefer to call the department directly. Since I have started doing these things, the interactions have been better overall. Another technique is to offer to help the customer myself – it doesn't always work, but if I can find the answer for them on the company website it saves everyone time.

Similarly, when I initiate a call I need to be more precise to take control, such as by saying, 'I have three questions' – this will help to ensure that the call achieves its objectives rather than being cut off after the first question.

Some customers are satisfied if they can have a chat because they're lonely, but equally it is important to budget time – I recently enjoyed listening to someone explaining their qualifications to me, but had to politely conclude the conversation after the office closed, as the person the customer actually needed to speak to had gone home.

Other good tips were about how to handle angry customers, of whom I encounter a few. I already do take their concerns seriously, try to find a solution and apologise as best I can, but I'm less good at using the customer's name to remind them that they are not angry at me personally, so it takes me a while to de-stress after taking such a call.

The book also reminds me to be careful about what to say when picking up someone else's phone. 'The person you called is in a meeting' can seem like a lame excuse, whereas 'The person you called is in a meeting but will be available after 3pm' sounds more genuine, whether it is true or not.

So, I enjoyed the book, learned quite a lot from it, and will put it into the next book sale for someone else to read.

A book notice which says, 'We're not sexist, but. . . '

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