145 -- PERSONAL PERFORMANCE UPDATE
IMPROVING YOUR TELEPHONE SKILLS
Phone power. The telephone and how you handle it are important to success in any business. A few simple guidelines on telephone etiquette can help you make a positive impression on suppliers, customers, bosses, employees even wrong numbers.
By Amy S. Bly and Robert W. Bly
††††††††††† The telephone has a great deal of power, yet as a basic business instrument it is often misused. How many times have you been put off by a receptionist who gives you a grilling to rival that given Al Capone by the FBI? Or been greeted by an anonymous "hold, please" and left hanging in a silent void for what seems like an eternity? At best, these kinds of encounters are annoying. At worst, they can create a negative impression and sour a relationship.
††††††††††† The first contact many people have with you is over the phone. They probably will form a lasting impression of you on the basis of that conversation. Fortunately, with a little tact and attention to what you say and how you say it. you can use the phone as an effective tool in getting and keeping cooperation, sales, and goodwill.
Mind Your Manners
††††††††††† Promptness counts. Answer your calls on the first or second ring, if possible. This gives the caller the impression that you are responsive and efficient. Occasionally, you may have to delay answering a call to finish an urgent task or because you were momentarily away from your desk. But no office phone should ring more than four times before being picked up by someone. Otherwise, you may risk losing a valuable call.
††††††††††† When you answer, identify yourself. A "hello'' is not sufficient; give your name and department. By saying "Mike Bugalowski, Quality Control," you give callers the information they need, and you also prompt them to identify themselves in return. This also shows that you are businesslike and ready to be of service.
††††††††††† Apply this rule even when picking up the phone for someone else. Say, "Tod Pitlow's office, Mike Bugalowski speaking," so callers will know someone is taking responsibility for helping them.
††††††††††† Answer and place your own calls. Screening calls via a receptionist or secretary wastes time and annoys callers. If possible, answer your own phone. Callers will appreciate the fact that you're available for them and that they don't have to be put through the third degree to reach you. Similarly, placing your own calls circumvents the ego game of seeing which executive waits for the other.
††††††††††† If you must have your calls screened in order to work efficiently, have your secretary do so politely and briefly. Don't make callers feel as if they're being discriminated against. Instead of saying, ''Who's calling?'' or worse, "Who is this?'' which challenges the caller, ask, "May I tell him who is calling, please? '
††††††††††† If you are available to speak to only certain people, ask your secretary to first say that you're in a meeting and then ask, "May I tell her who called?" If the caller is someone you want to talk to, your assistant can then say, "Here he is now," or "Let me see if I can get her for you."
††††††††††† Offer an explanation as to why someone is unavailable. Better to say, "He's in a meeting right now," "She's on another line,'' or ''He's out of the office," than simply "He's unavailable,'' or "She can't come to the phone.'' By giving more information to callers, you come across as being honest and up front, so they are less likely to feel they are being lied to or discriminated against.
††††††††††† Always offer to help the caller yourself, or find someone who can, or take a message and personally see that it gets to the right person. Don't ask the person to call back later this is inconsiderate of the caller's time and money.
††††††††††† When screening calls, avoid using phrases that seem to challenge callers or imply that they may not be worth talking to. For example, the screening phrase, "Does he know you?" is offensive because it puts callers in the embarrassing position of having to guess whether you remember them, and it implies that any caller not known will not be able to get through to you.
††††††††††† Some other screening phrases to avoid (along with our reactions to them): "Will she know where you 're from?' (I don't know Iím not a mind reader.) "And what is this in reference to?'' (Do you want the long version or the short version?) ''What company are you with?" (Does he only talk with people from companies? Too bad I'm with the IRS.) "And you're from . . . ?'' (Kentucky, originally.) "And what does this concerns" (His wife's gambling debt.)
††††††††††† People don't like to get the run around. So if you need to transfer someone, first explain why and where you are switching the call. It's also wise to give the caller the extension or number, in case the call gets disconnected.
††††††††††† Cover yourself. Leaving a phone unattended is a sure fire way to lose important calls and irritate those trying to reach you. We've all had the frustrating experience of calling a business and letting the phone ring 10 or 15 times with no answer. When that happens, we get angry and think, "What a poorly run company they must be to let the phone ring so long.''
††††††††††† If there is no one available in your office to answer your calls while you are away, have the calls transferred to a receptionist or someone else who agrees to cover for you.
††††††††††† Be sure to tell that person where you are going, when you will be back, and any telephone number where you can be reached. Then collect your messages and return your calls promptly.
††††††††††† When you take a message, listen carefully and write down everything. Get the person's name, telephone number, affiliation, and the name of the person or department the caller is trying to reach. Even when callers are in a rush, don't be afraid to ask them to repeat spellings, pronunciations, and numbers if you didn't hear clearly the first time. Taking complete, accurate messages avoids confusion, and ensures that calls can be returned promptly.
††††††††††† No one likes to be put on hold. But if it's necessary, first explain why you need to leave the line, how long you'll be gone, and then ask if the caller can hold. Wait for a reply no one likes being put on hold before they have a chance to object. But when you ask, you'll find that most people say ''OK'' and appreciate your courtesy. When you return to the phone, thank the caller by name for waiting.
††††††††††† Make sure the caller isn't on hold for more than 2 minutes. If you need to be away from the phone longer than that, ask if the caller would prefer that you call back. Promise to call back at a specific time, and do so. brake your voice smile.
††††††††††† Everyone has a bad day now and then, but it's not smart to show it in person or on the phone. Anger, impatience, or simple boredom can come through a phone line quite clearly and make a caller defensive or nervous. If you are unpleasant or brusque on the phone, people may go out of their way to avoid dealing with you.
††††††††††† So, no matter what your mood, strive to be pleasant and alert throughout a conversation. When people call at a bad time, ask if you can get back to them again, mention a specific time when you will call them back.
††††††††††† A good rule to remember is to treat callers the way you would guests in your office or home. You'll win their respect and goodwill. Courtesy and attentiveness can only help you and your company in improved public image, better customer relationships, and increased sales.
††††††††††† Have you ever had to hold the receiver about a foot away from your ear to dim the voice on the other end? Or, conversely, have you ever strained to make out what the person on the other end was saying? Then you know how important a good speaking voice is in effective telephone communications.
††††††††††† When you make a call, put the receiver against your ear. hold the mouthpiece close to your lips, and speak clearly in a normal tone of voice. If people can't understand you because you talk too fast, make a conscious effort to slow down. These tips may seem elementary, but they can help prevent garbled communications and listener frustration.
††††††††††† Brief conversations save time, and your listener will be grateful for them. Everyone enjoys a certain degree of personal conversation, such as "How are you?'' or ''How was your trip?'' but lengthy personal discourses or general ramblings on are inappropriate, and probably boring to most people.
††††††††††† It's a good idea, therefore, to stick to the point and to be prepared when you are planning or expecting a call. We suggest you write down the major points you want to cover on a sheet of paper; when you talk, look at the sheet and check off each point as it is discussed. This technique will help you keep on the subject and avoid getting sidetracked. If an unexpected subject comes up, and you need to get more information, explain this to the caller and make arrangements to call back with the answers.
††††††††††† Be gracious and pleasant when ending a call even if you're not happy with the outcome. Thank the person for his or her time; summarize points agreed on or actions to be taken; and say "good-bye" so the other person will know you are finished. In fact, it's best to let the caller hang up first, so that you don't cut him or tier off inadvertently. And when you hang up, do it gently. A slammed receiver creates jangled nerves and a negative impression.
††††††††††† Following these simple tips will put you ahead of the crowd in dealing with colleagues, superiors, suppliers, acid clients. True, you may find yourself handling more calls because people like dealing with you, but this brings with it increased opportunities for success. By mastering the fine art of telephone conversation, you will enhance your reputation as well as your company's.
About the Authors:
Amy Bly, a freelance public relations writer and Bob Bly, an independent copywriter and consultant specializing in industrial advertising live and work in New Milford, NJ