Telephone Skills

by Babs Moore

In a nutshell

1. Preparing for an outgoing call

To get the best out of a call, you need to prepare and plan ahead. This might entail a few moments’ thought, a quick conversation with a colleague or a more structured plan.

  • Be clear about your objectives before you start.
  • If appropriate, list your main objectives at the start of the call, so the other party knows what to expect.
  • For your own use, list acceptable outcomes in order of preference.
  • Consider whether the telephone is the best medium or whether email or a face-to-face meeting would be preferable.
  • Think through possible scenarios before you make the call.
  • Time your call to suit the other person and make sure you have sufficient time.
  • Have with you any information that may probably/possibly be required.
  • Prepare your opening.


2. Preparing for an incoming call

Many of the points listed for an outgoing call apply, especially if the call is scheduled.

  • Consider whether you could use a scripted call procedure for expected calls.
  • For unexpected calls, note down who has called, from which company and why.
  • The introductory answer should be consistent, appropriate and informative.


3. How to answer the phone

The first impression many people will have of the company will be the person answering the telephone when they call.

  • Consider having a company telephone policy so that all calls are answered in the same way.
  • Make sure it’s not too long-winded and that everyone uses it.
  • In general, external calls should be answered within three to five rings and internal calls after a couple of rings.
  • Always give the company name when answering external calls, but not internal calls.
  • Managers should set the tone and follow company policy.
  • It sounds professional if you can be informed about the availability of others; a company-wide scheduling system may be helpful here.
  • Make sure users understand the telephone system so that they can transfer calls accurately.
  • Use the mute function, when appropriate – it helps to avoid customers overhearing unfortunate comments.
  • Always take care with message taking.


4. Using voicemail

Voicemail is a powerful tool when used well and can be a great time saver.

  • Switch your phone to voicemail when you are unable to take calls or don’t want to be distracted. Don’t do this too much, or you will get the reputation of being unavailable.
  • The message should say who you are and when you are likely to be available to call back.
  • If your schedule is unpredictable, update your message regularly, giving details so callers will know when to expect a call back.
  • If necessary, give other options for urgent calls.
  • When leaving a message, give your name, company name, time of message and phone number.
  • Back up complex messages with an email or fax.


5. Closing a call

Follow this etiquette when closing a call.

  • Summarise the main points, including any further action that may be required.
  • The person being called should be the one to put the phone down first.
  • If the call is dragging on, politely go into summarizing mode.
  • Never just hang up.


6. Telephone etiquette

Following good etiquette makes the whole telephone experience easy and pleasant.

  • Focus on the call – don’t eat, drink, walk around or work on your computer.
  • Try to avoid interruptions; if a colleague must interrupt, they should pass a note rather than speak.
  • If you are able to make a second call while putting the first on hold, do this sparingly and only when appropriate.
  • If you really need to take a call in a meeting, either have a mobile with you, but in silent mode, or detail a colleague to interrupt you when that vital call comes through.
  • If the line goes dead, it is the caller who should ring back.
  • When you ring someone, check that it is a convenient time for them to talk.
  • If you have promised to call back, do so.
  • The habit of using secretaries to make the call and then connect the caller to their boss is very much a thing of the past; it comes over as arrogant.


7. Difficult calls/irate customers

A well-handled call can do much to sooth a difficult situation.

  • Show you are listening by making remarks such as ‘I see’.
  • Summarise the main points, checking that you have all the necessary information.
  • Make sure you have the correct contact details.
  • Allow angry callers to let off steam.
  • Make sure the caller knows who you are, what your job function is and what action, if any, you intend to take.
  • Use appropriate body language – people sense what they cannot see.
  • If you need to transfer the call, explain why and to whom.
  • If a lot of irate calls can be expected, prepare a team to handle the problems, but make sure that each caller receives personal attention.


8. Making the best use of conference calls

Conference calling is an efficient and cost-effective way of holding a short meeting, especially when geographical considerations make a face-to-face meeting impractical.

  • A conference call should be planned like a meeting.
  • Use landlines, if possible; mobile users should be stationery and somewhere quiet.
  • To avoid problems with boredom and inattention, the majority of the conference subject matter must be relevant to the majority of people for the majority of the time.
  • Keep to a pre-arranged timing and allocate fair time to each person.
  • The chairperson needs to be firm.
  • Use the mute button if you need a quick discussion with someone your end, but tell everyone you are using it.
  • When video conferencing, practise using the equipment beforehand.


9. Projecting a professional image

The telephone is an excellent means of communicating, but communication is a two-way process. A good telephone professional will be sensitive to the person on the other end and ensure that both parties have time to speak and make their points.

  • Use listening skills: give customers time to think and ask questions, and allow irate customers to rant before trying to solve their problem.
  • Demonstrate understanding by checking and summarising.
  • For a business call, the core subject should be the main focus of the call and should occupy 90 per cent plus of the call’s time.
  • A professional telephone voice is clear and just a fraction slower than in normal conversation.
  • A voicemail or message should always include your name, company and contact details, together with the reason for the call.
  • Preparation is key to presenting a professional image.


10. Using the telephone functions

Part of being good at using the telephone is to understand the system and know how to use it to best effect.

  • Read the manual.
  • Train newcomers.
  • Useful functions include being able to add in a third person, voicemail, divert functions, mute (or hold) functions, last number redial, speed dialling and hands-free.


11. Understanding the role to be played

Depending on the type of call, many different roles need to be played out by the caller and the receiver. Practising the different roles people are likely to need to play is an important exercise in improving telephone skills.

  • Customer service departments need to be trained in the problem-solver role.
  • Sales people use the provider role.
  • Good questioning techniques are essential to the advisor role.
  • The friend role is often used to calm the situation before you go into problem-solver mode.
  • If your role is the purchaser, be well prepared before you make the call.


12. Coaching others in using the telephone

All too often, the need for coaching in telephone skills is neglected.

  • Set a good, consistent example and use the phone in front of your team.
  • Explain and expand on company policy, where applicable.
  • Help plan, execute and review calls.
  • Teach staff listening and questioning skills.
  • Role-play is useful for teaching new skills.
  • Ask the team to list annoying telephone habits and discuss their impact.