Answering the phone seems so simple. Yet, in my company's experience, less than 30% of businesses score a passing grade in their handling of incoming calls for sales and service.
Failing to follow best practices in this area is costly. After all, you've likely spent marketing dollars in order to generate the calls in the first place. And by the time a prospective customer calls you, they're ready to buy and looking only for reasons not to buy from you rather than a competitor.
That's why you need to do everything you can to put your best foot forward and attract as many additional clients as possible. We call this approach "inbound call optimization." Although this term may sound complicated, the good news is that the best practices you should adopt are simple and straightforward. If you train employees in phone-answering best practices, then ensure that they consistently follow these practices, you'll give your firm an edge over most of your rivals.
Here are some of the best practices:
1. Ensure that callers connect with a human: Most people want to talk to a live person who can quickly answer their questions. Voicemail and IVR systems are impersonal and inflexible, and leave a poor first impression. Also, if you receive calls outside regular business hours from potential clients in other time zones, consider hiring an after-hours receptionist or professional answering service.
2. Don't dawdle—but don't rush—to answer: Don't make callers impatient by letting the phone ring more than twice. But don't pick it up too fast either, which makes you seem not very busy.
3. Greet callers properly: Ensure that your employees include each of these three basic elements when they answer the phone. First, they should make a brief salutation mentioning the company's name, such as "Thank you for calling [Company Name]." Second, they should tell callers their own name. And third, they should include an offer of assistance in the form of an open-ended question, such as "How may I help you today?"
4. Don't read from a script: This comes across as insincere and impersonal. It's fine to use points to guide the conversation, but not to read them word for word. If your employees can make a real connection with callers, that will increase the probability of a sale.
5. Use the caller's name, but not too often: Try to ascertain the caller's name and use it periodically when addressing her. There is no word in existence that people like hearing more than their own name, and using it intermittently in the conversation will help to establish a connection by letting them know you think they're important enough to remember their name. But be careful not to seem manipulative by overdoing it.
6. Avoid closed-ended responses: Responses limited to "Yes," "No" or "Sure" don't fuel further conversation. Instead, teach your employees to follow up with further information or questions in order to sustain the conversation and boost the odds of establishing a connection. For instance, if the caller asks, "Are you located at Portage and Main?", don't just say, "Yes." Instead, say, "Yes, and if you're driving, you can find parking behind the building, right off Main. And if you're coming by Winnipeg Transit..." Of course, you must also balance off your desire to forge a connection with respect for the caller's time.
7. Be sure you understand the caller's issue: If the caller has a complex problem or hasn't been succinct in stating his question, paraphrase or restate your understanding of the issue back to him using his own words. Then ask him to confirm that you've understood correctly. This will help avoid embarrassment and wasted time and energy, as well as making the caller feel that he has been heard.
8. Be as positive as possible (unless you're running a funeral home): Most people gravitate to "can do" people and are repelled by "can't be done" types. The same is true when dealing with companies. We'd rather forge a relationship and buy from companies that we believe can and will fulfill their obligations, and a positive outlook dramatically impacts our assessment of those abilities. One way to create a positive impression is to take the time to smile before answering. This will release endorphins in your body that will impact your attitude, which the caller can often detect subconsciously.
9. Don't let them rot on hold: Another key to showing respect is not to leave callers on hold for longer than 30 seconds. If she demands to be placed on hold, interject every 60 seconds to tell her that the person with whom she wishes to speak is still occupied, thereby letting her know that you haven't forgotten about her. Or take down her contact information so the person she wishes to speak with can return the call.
10. Never lose your temper: It's easy to record phone calls, and Canadian law requires that only one party be aware that a call is being recorded. This means losing your temper with a client or prospect could easily end up online for all to hear. If an employee feels as if he's about to blow his stack, he should tell the caller that he'll call back shortly after he's had time to think about how best to respond to the issue raised in the call.
11. Confirm that you've addressed the caller's issue: End the call by asking the caller if you've addressed his reason for calling satisfactorily, and thank him for calling. This will make him feel that he has accomplished his goal in calling you, that you've heard what he has to say and have resolved his issue—or, at least, have committed to doing so.
12. Sum up any actions you've agreed upon: Close each inbound phone call by spelling this out in specific terms, such as, "I look forward to meeting you at our office tomorrow afternoon at 4 p.m. to discuss next steps." This agreement is the first commitment from the client, and in most sales cycles, the first commitment is the most difficult. Successive commitments become easier to achieve.
Jeff Quipp is an expert on search and social media marketing. He is the founder and CEO of Search Engine People Inc., an Ajax, Ont.-based search and social media marketing firm that has been on the PROFIT 200 ranking of Canada's Fastest Growing Companies for the past four consecutive years.
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