After registering the patent for the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell and his partners offered to sell it to Western Union for a sum of $100,000. The latter, however, remarked that the instrument was only a toy, and the price was too high. Two years later, the president of Western Union said that if he could buy the patent for $25 million, that would be a bargain (Wikipedia). The history of the telephone since then has proved how true his words were.
The telephone has become so much a part of our life that we take it for granted and give little thought to it. As a major medium of business communication, it calls for the same deep understanding as other forms like business correspondence and email messaging.
Also Read V.R. Narayanaswami’s earlier columns
A telephone call is often the first contact a potential customer has with your organization. That is an opportunity for you to build rapport with the caller. At the end of the interaction, the customer must carry an impression of your organization as friendly, helpful, reliable and well-organized.
In almost all countries today, “hello” is the form of greeting most widely used. Graham Bell had suggested “Ahoy”, a sailor’s call, but “hello”, which goes back to the year 1600, was finally accepted. But a business call requires a more informative response. The greeting should contain the name of the organization, the name of the person receiving the call and a courteous ending. “Bharat Consultants, I am Rajaram from sales. How can I help you?” Or, “Thank you for calling Bharat Bank. My name is Rajaram. How may I help you?”
Besides the form of response, there is the question of the time taken. The advice generally given by trainers is to take the call not later than the third ring. Conversely, when you make a call, don’t let the destination phone ring more than three or four times. We have had the frustrating experience of persistent ringing which ends the moment we lift the receiver, leaving us with a dial tone.
Avoid saying “Yes?” or “Hi” if you are receiving a business call. The former borders on arrogance, and the latter is too casual. Questions that begin with “wh-” words such as “who” and “what” are generally seen as lacking in courtesy. “May I” is the form that shows respect for the listener. Instead of “What is your name, please?” you could say, “May I have your name, please?”
Telephonic communication can be observed from three angles. One is the technology that facilitates the interaction. This can be handled only by trained operators. The second is the message and its content. The staff in the organization interacting with customers should have full information about the company and its services at their fingertips. Problems faced by customers have to be resolved using information from records and databanks. An efficient organization should be able to resolve problems on the same day.
The third aspect is the “emotional” element in the communication. What counts here is the personality of the communicator. During the interaction the customer sees in the interlocutor a representative of the company. Unlike a face-to-face interaction, a telephonic exchange provides no non-verbal clues; there is no body language to interpret. In such a situation, the speaker’s tone and voice modulation become crucially important. The staff receiving calls should cultivate a tone of voice that is pleasing and friendly. Trainers advise you to smile as you speak to customers, for that will make you sound friendly even when the listener cannot see your smile. Your voice should not give the impression that you are in a rush. You must speak at a measured pace and articulate words clearly. Let your tone reveal your enthusiasm, your genuine interest in what you are doing, and your eagerness to be helpful.
Remember the maxim, the customer is always right. The last thing you want to do is to enter into an argument with your customers. If you know that they are wrong, present your view courteously and tactfully.
Sometimes it becomes necessary to put a caller on hold. I have been put on hold by a public sector company, and then made to wait what seemed an eternity. Every half minute, a voice would say, “You are very important to us.” They must have lost track of the call, as I had to disconnect after waiting long for a response.
Never put callers on hold without asking for permission to do so. “Is it all right if I put you on hold for a minute?” Keep them posted with reports of what is being done. Don’t use a robotic recording that plays itself every 45 seconds. If necessary, ask them if they would like to continue to hold or to leave a message and have you call back. Any time you offer to call back, do that without fail.
Do not use a speaker phone unless more than one person has to be listening to the conversation. It distorts the quality of the sound, and the customer may feel that his privacy is lost. Seek the listener’s permission before using it.
An important step in receiving business calls is writing notes that are useful. Have paper and pen readily available. Note both the name and the number of the caller. Many times we find numbers doodled at random, with no names linked to them. You can prepare a standard format for the notes, with space for noting the purpose of the call and a hint of the action, besides contact details. Close the conversation with a polite “Thank you” or “Good day”.
Avoid calling a customer’s home before 8am or after 9pm. Even during business hours, it is good manners to ask, “Is this a good time to talk to you?” Addressing a customer by name can add a personal touch to the conversation. But when someone calling me uses my name at the end of every sentence, I feel embarrassed. You can use the customer’s name three or four times during an 8-10 minute call.
Every organization should have a team of employees well-versed in telephone etiquette. There can also be a script to be followed by all the employees who use the phone. Customers will then come to expect a certain degree of courtesy and efficiency from you. That will build a complimentary image of your organization.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his column. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org