Say it with a smile

Contributing Writer

How many times have you developed a seething contempt for an organization merely by talking to its receptionist on the telephone? You may not have reached the person you wanted and it was the only interaction you had, but the tone of the conversation set you off. You may not even remember what the person said. But you do remember how they said it and how it made you feel. Unfortunately, if you start the day with a negative phone experience, it's easy to expect all your calls to follow suit.

Just like a gatekeeper who emits negativity without knowing or caring, we all need to be more conscious of our telephone tone. Why? When you are speaking on a phone, all you have to offer is your tone. The minute you pick up the telephone, the effect of your body language goes into your tone of voice, becoming 86 percent of the message. Face-to-face, tone of voice represents only 38 percent of the equation, while actual body language accounts for 55 percent. So when you use the telephone, it's not what you say, but the way that you say it.

Within 10 seconds, customers can tell if they are talking to the beauty or the beast. The beauty or the beast may not even be aware of their attitude, but the customer with nothing but tone of voice to go on, figures it out fast.

The tone of voice reveals exactly what the speaker thinks and feels. A flat or monotone voice tells callers, "I'm bored and could not care less about what you're saying." Slow speed and low pitch communicates, "I'm depressed and want to be left alone." A high-pitched, emphatic voice says, "I'm angry and not open to what you are telling me." A high-pitched, drawn-out voice conveys "I don't believe what I'm hearing."

If you smile when you answer the phone, people will hear it in your voice. Always tell what you can do - not what you cannot do. Being indifferent to a caller is just as bad as being disrespectful - show each customer that you really do care by conveying a pleasant attitude. When the customer is wrong, work hard to make them feel like they are right. When dealing with an upset customer, deal with the person first and then the problem. Always thank every customer for calling - even if they chew you out or curse at you. They have taken their precious time and have chosen to call you. That call is a compliment - even if it doesn't feel like one. It's also helpful to repeat information back to callers to eliminate misunderstandings.

Answering the phone is your only opportunity to make a good first impression on your caller. Company representatives should never let a business phone ring more than three times. They should remember to use the caller's name at least once in the conversation and develop a consistent greeting that is short, pleasant and uses the employee and com-pany name: "Thank you for calling (ABC Inc.). This is John. How may I help you today?" Such an introduction allows the caller to immediately identify a need.

If you have to put your caller on hold, avoid keeping them there for longer than 45 seconds. Check back periodically. Always offer them a choice of being put back on hold or being called back. Let the caller know how long they will be on hold or what to expect next. Offer to assist if the person they need is unavailable. If the caller doesn't want your help, offer to take a message or send them an appropriate voice mailbox.

When transferring a call, make contact with the person the caller needs before you transfer the caller. "Let me get the credit department on the line for you," for example. Let the caller know who they will be speaking with and offer that person's phone number: "I have John in the credit department on the line. His number for future reference is 555-1234." Prepare the person with whom the caller will be speaking before transferring the call, then they can begin: "Hello Mrs. Jones. I have your account in front of me. I understand that you need ... ".

What's the best way to end a conversation? First recapitulate the caller's needs. Then tell them what to expect next - whether it is a return phone call or a delivery by a certain date at a specific time. Finally, offer further assistance and end the conversation by thanking the customer for calling. It never hurts to make them feel great that they've called you.

Through it all, the most important element of any telephone transaction is the initial tone set by the gatekeeper. For the most part, it's easy to be helpful, positive and pleasant. For the bottom line it's imperative.

Dave Benak is a retired training director for Consolidated Freightways who lives in east Vancouver. He teaches leadership, management and supervision courses at Clark College and owns and operates "TrainingPays," a local training and development company. He can be reached at (360) 944-7571 or

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