Canadian Consulting Engineer


December 1, 2000
By Jeff Mowatt

If your clients aren't impressed by you or your staff on the telephone, they can switch businesses by merely hanging up and dialing the competition. Your telephone skills can therefore have a signific...

If your clients aren’t impressed by you or your staff on the telephone, they can switch businesses by merely hanging up and dialing the competition. Your telephone skills can therefore have a significant impact on your business and career.

To find out how you and your staff are perceived, take this telephone test. While you’re at it, have a friend make a “mystery call” to see how your company measures up.

How long does it take you and/or your switchboard operator to answer the phone?

(a) five rings or less, (b) three rings or less, (c) under three rings.

After two rings, callers are wondering what’s going on. Your phone should be answered in person by the second ring or by your voice-mail system by the fourth ring.

Do you answer your phone with any of the following?

(a) “Hello,” (b) “Company name only,” (c) “Last name only,” (d) “Good afternoon, this is (full name); How can I help you?”

All of these greetings have flaws. Answer (a), (b) and (c) are too abrupt and don’t provide enough information. Answer (d) is too wordy and dissuades callers from identifying themselves because it encourages them to get to the point rather than saying their name. Plus it forces you to check the clock to see if it’s before or after noon. A better greeting is: “Thank you for calling ABC Company. This is John.”

Have you ever said, “Please hold” to a caller?

(a) yes, (b) no.

Putting clients on hold without their consent is a sure formula to lose them. Never put a caller on hold without asking for their permission, and then waiting for their response. Keeping a client waiting on the line while you chat to someone assumes that their time is not as valuable as yours.

How long does it take a person on hold to become annoyed?

(a) two minutes, (b) one minute, (c) 30 seconds, (d) 17 seconds.

Studies show that after only 17 seconds callers on hold become annoyed. The exception is when the greeter explains why the caller is being asked to hold and provides the estimated delay. Knowing beforehand how long they can expect to wait reduces the chance of annoyance, particularly among long distance and cellular phone callers. Another option to prevent frustration is to offer the caller the option of either holding or hanging up and having their call returned within a brief, specific time period.

When you are talking on the phone and a visitor arrives, who gets priority?

(a) the visitor, (b) the caller.

Obviously the answer will depend on whether the person on the phone is a client or someone else. If you need to interrupt the caller, the quickest way to get their attention is to call their name: “George, I have someone who just walked in, can I ask you to hold for a moment?” Wait for their agreement. Then acknowledge the visitor, tell them you’ll be a moment, and wrap up your telephone conversation.

If your visitor is a client, then get someone else to answer the phone, or let it switch to voice mail. Abandoning clients to answer the phone is downright rude and is a guaranteed way to lose them. As obvious as this seems, it’s one of the most common blunders.

When a staff member receives a call for you when you are away, how are they most likely to respond?

(a) “Mr. Smith’s not in right now, so I’ll have to take a message.” (b) “Mr. Smith’s at lunch. Can I take a message?” (c) “Mr. Smith should be back soon. Could you call back in about 15 minutes?”

All these statements have flaws that make the greeter sound unhelpful and unprofessional. Consider each response.

The statement, “I’ll have to take a message,” makes it sound like an inconvenient chore. Instead, change two words: “I’ll be happy to take a message.” The assistant conveys the impression of someone with a terrific customer service attitude.

It is completely irrelevant that you are “at lunch,” “in a meeting,” “with a client” or “busy.” Therefore, “Mr. Smith is not available right now” is the most appropriate response, followed by, “I’d be happy to take a message.”

Asking a caller to phone back later gives the impression that your office is too lazy or disorganized to take a message. This gives a potential client a terrific excuse to call your competitor. Enough said.CCE

Based in Calgary, Jeff Mowatt is the author of self-study training systems and speaks on the “Art of Client Service, Influence with Ease.” Tel. 1-800-jmowatt, e-mail


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