How important is your first interaction with a customer?
Once upon a time, the saying used to go that a customer’s first interaction with a business was everything. It was how they remembered that business forever. No matter how good the service that followed was.
It’s not quite that simple anymore.
The reality for today’s customer-centric world is that every single customer interaction represents your business. Delivering anything less than outstanding service every time will cost your business.
Not only will it cost you potential leads and sales, but it will also cost you in regard to your business productivity and brand authority.
All of this is to say, your phone skills matter — a lot.
Whether that’s sales skills or service skills, you need both to deliver a first-class customer experience. That’s precisely why we’ve put together our complete phone skills guide to walk you through everything you need to know.
Phone Skills: A Definition
There are lots of different phone skill definitions, but we like this one most:
“Telephone skills are made up of 4 key aspects; communication skills, interpersonal skills, phone etiquette and call management skills.”
So many people assume phone skills all just come down to manners. While that’s definitely part of it, it doesn’t give us the whole picture.
Phone skills should be thought of as an all-encompassing term for how your business interacts with customers over the phone.
This definition includes all aspects of phone calls. From call handling to call answering to following up, all these interactions are part of how you do business. They’re what shape your customer’s experience.
As such, there are best practices for phone skills all businesses should be following to ensure their interactions are the most positive, productive and profitable they can be.
4 Key Aspects of Sales and Service Skills
Broadly speaking, phone skills can be split into five different aspects to consider:
- Call answering
- Call ownership
- Call handling
- Call management
- Call closing
We’ll be looking at all of them in further depth throughout this guide. But first let’s understand why phone skills are so important for your business.
Why are Phone Skills so Important for Businesses?
We said this in the introduction, but we’ll say it again to drive it home.
Poor phone skills cost your business.
A poor experience costs your company money. A customer who has a poor experience buying from you will go to a competitor who values their time.
But it doesn’t just cost you that one purchase.
Chances are, that customer won’t come back to you in their lifetime. A study showed that after just one negative experience, a whopping 51% of customers will never do business with a company again.
It will also cost you valuable word-of-mouth-marketing. Research suggests the average customer tells a further 15 people about a poor service experience. So you’re losing those customers too.
When all is said and done, bad customer service costs UK businesses around 37 billion a year.
No small sum, is it?
Yet many businesses seem to accept it as a normal cost of doing business. Instead of resolving internal issues revolving around customer service, they’ll plough funds into marketing campaigns to bring in new customers.
This strategy comes with its own price — productivity.
The Cost of Poor Productivity
Let’s look at the average phone advisor’s 8-hour working day and figure out how they spend their time.
We’ll immediately knock a couple of hours off for other tasks they need to get done throughout the day like replying to emails and meetings, so we’re down to 6 hours already.
Out of those 6 hours, let’s guess half of them are taken up by service calls.
By service calls, we mean queries, hidden complaints and other calls which are just taking up time. Whatever they are, if the initial service or interaction with your business had been better, the customer wouldn’t be calling.
This can include anything from full-blown complaints to something as simple as checking the time of an appointment. Regardless of the severity of the call, both highlight issues with the customer experience and take up our agent’s time.
Before you know it, our agent has lost half their day to service calls.
Then half a week.
Then half a month.
Then half a year.
All for calls that didn’t need to happen had the customer experience been improved in the first place. This time could have been spent on helping the business grow through following up leads or sales.
You might think your business doesn’t spend 50% of their time handling service calls, but you may be surprised. From the many different businesses and industries we’ve helped become more productive, 50% service calls is a conservative estimate.
Improving your phone skills can change all of this.
The Benefits of Good Phone Skills
It’s not all doom and gloom.
If we change perspective, delivering great customer service phone skills come with amazing results for businesses.
Customers are happy to spend up to 17% more to do business with a company that delivers excellent customer service; and 7 out of 10 customers say they’ve done exactly that.
These happy customers are good news for business because it’s up to five times more expensive to acquire a new customer than it is to keep an existing one. Because of this, increasing customer retention rates by even 5% can increase profits by up to 25%.
All this research backs up what businesses profess to know, but so often ignore.
To compete in today’s business world, companies must be customer-centric.
Long gone are the days where businesses could compete on price or quality. The 21st century customer expects an outstanding omnichannel customer experience and for your business to be empathetic and ethical.
Anything less will cost your business.
With the risks and benefits regarding good customer service laid out, it’s clear to see how important good phone skills are.
It’s one of the defining ways you interact with your customers. But as we said above, it’s not just how you answer a phone that matters.
Your phone skills also include things like how well your company manages and handles calls, as well as how well you follow up after.
Let’s look at all these different aspects in more depth.
How To Improve Call Answering Skills
Call answering is a hugely broad phone skill in itself. It’s one of the defining features of good customer service.
Getting your call answering right is the difference between a happy customer and an unhappy one.
This isn’t as simple as reading from a script. Your call answering should be guided by the principles of customer service. This means both understanding and listening to your customers, but also knowing the right actions to take.
These key principles of customer service include:
- Be responsive
- Be knowledgeable
- Be consistent
- Be effortless
- Be human
- Be open
- Be proactive
- Be continuous
They work incredibly well alongside the vital phone manners needed for customer service:
- Answer promptly
- Introduce yourself
- Be clear
- Be audible
- Match brand voice
- Be positive
- Be polite
- Be helpful
Understanding Your Customers
All this starts with understanding your customer in the first place. You can’t help them if you have no idea what their motivations, needs or wants are.
You can better understand your customers through customer empathy.
A nebulous concept, ever-changing depending on who you ask. But at it’s basic level, it’s the skill of understanding the needs and feelings of your customers. A definition we love is:
“Customer empathy is the ability to empathise with your current and potential customers. It helps us understand the needs and feelings of customers and view things from their perspective. Customer empathy can be used by many different departments from customer service to product development to marketing.”
In essence, customer empathy skills can help you become more customer-centric, improve your customer experience and increase your profitability.
You can improve customer empathy in a lot of ways, but techniques you can implement with your team straight away include creating user personas and developing customer empathy maps.
Developing customer empathy across an entire business is a little trickier. It involves changing the way businesses communicate from dated top-down communications to a flat organisation.
Businesses need to value feedback from their customer-facing staff and create structured communications between those staff and other departments to allow for continual improvement of the customer experience, led by empathy.
Overall, genuinely empathising with your customers can help improve phone skills in a huge variety of ways because understanding your customers’ needs can help you make more customer-centric decisions around your call management.
This could be as simple as hiring more employees to reduce wait times. It could be through improving your UX experience to provide information frequently requested on calls. It could be through adding an automated follow-up email to reiterate information shared. The possibilities are boundless.
Alongside empathy, businesses should be aiming for proactive customer service as the two go hand-in-hand.
Proactive Customer Service
All proactive customer service means is anticipating the needs of your customers and addressing them before they occur — and you don’t need to be a mind reader to do it.
Companies currently rely too heavily on reactive customer service. This is where call advisors are just putting out fire after fire, as opposed to proactively growing their business by chasing leads and so on.
Proactive customer service comes with a lot of benefits for business, all through increasing productivity and profitability
- It can free up your team from unproductive service calls
- It can boost brand authority through better experiences
- It can improve customer retention rates
- It can get you more online reviews and increase your search engine ranking positions
- It can improve your word of mouth marketing
To implement proactive customer service in your business, you should be led by customer feedback, just like we mentioned for empathetic businesses. This can be through surveys, but you should also be monitoring your online mentions and investigating complaints. You should also be creating self-service content on your website so customers can help themselves with common queries, instead of having to contact you.
Proactive customer service alongside customer empathy help lay the foundations of good call answering, ultimately helping your employees deliver a better customer service experience when they pick up the phone.
Listening to Customers
Once these foundations are in place, you can move onto addressing the phone skills more directly related to phone call answering.
While manners are obviously a vital phone skill, many companies fall short in assuming this is the only phone skill employees should focus on. It’s not the case.
There are few things more frustrating than feeling like you’ve not been heard.
Chances are you’ve experienced at least one of these interactions in your lifetime. You’ve called up a company and explained the problem. But because they’re reading from a script, you’re not getting the answers you need. You’re frustrated, the agent is frustrated and everyone has a bad experience.
Simply listening could have fixed the problem.
This is why companies and agents who value active listening in customer service have better phone skills.
Active listening helps build trust with your customers by showing them they’re not just any other customer. The agent wants to hear and help them as a unique individual. It helps your employees become more empathetic and all this feeds back into your business growth.
There are many skills involved in active listening on phone calls, but the most important are:
- Verbalise understanding
- Don't interrupt
- Be empathetic
- Minimise distractions
- Repeat and summarise
- Use questioning techniques
- Be calm
- Be human
- Don't get stuck in your head
- Take notes
Sometimes this means going off script, but your customers will love you for it in the long run.
Customer Service Questioning Techniques
As we hinted at above, active listening goes hand-in-hand with questioning skills.
Any call advisor can tell you that a high proportion of the phone calls they get are queries. It’s so easy to assume that because the advisor has answered the given query the caller had, that you can write that off as a good customer service experience. But it’s not the case.
The reality is, your company and your employees are the experts of your service or product. Your customer isn’t.
Sometimes, this means customers won’t have the knowledge to know the questions they need to ask in the first place. This makes questioning a vital phone skill.
You can deliver better customer service by not only actively listening, but by utilising the right questions to ask customers to get to the root of issues and deliver the best possible outcomes.
This is why call advisors should be trained in customer service questioning techniques. This phone skill goes beyond the simple, “how can I help you today?” opening question, to instead knowing what different types of questions to ask to get the most valuable information out of customers. This could include:
- Open questions
- Closed questions
- Funnel questions
- Probing questions
- Clarifying questions
- TED questions
- Leading questions
How To Deal With Upset Customers
Of course, occasionally it seems bad customer experiences are unavoidable.
For phone advisors, this is often due to some other interaction with your business and the first they’re hearing of it. In these instances, they should be confident in their phone skills to handle these interactions, as well as trained in how to deal with difficult customers.
Conflict resolution is, after all, a vital customer service skill, but often it seems to be a phone skill that call advisors find more difficult to develop.
Dealing with upset customers involves understanding the different types of difficult customers and knowing how to deal with them individually. For example, you wouldn’t take the same approach when dealing with an entitled customer as you would with a very frugal one.
Some basic tips to follow when dealing with difficult customers include:
- Don’t take it personally
- Be empathetic
- Take ownership
- Keep calm
- Be transparent
- Know when to escalate
- Verbalise your understanding
- Use and share resources
- If all else fails, remember they’re only human!
The companies who set themselves apart from the competition are those who go beyond the bare minimum complaints handling process with service recovery strategies.
So many companies deal with complaints poorly because they follow a set process and refuse to go outside this process for each unique problem.
You’ve likely seen the copy and paste, hollow apologies for poor TrustPilot reviews. These are a great example of how not to resolve a complaint.
Service recovery focuses on recognising customer expectations and meeting them in order to rectify the situation.
Moreover, there's a great reason to do so because of the service recovery paradox. This theory suggests that customers who have a negative experience, but receive a great and prompt resolution, will be more loyal customers than those who had the standard customer experience you offer.
Sounds odd, but it makes sense when you give it a little thought. After all, you’ve been given the opportunity to prove to your customer how much you value their business. If you perform great service recovery, it’s logical that you’d end up with a more loyal customer.
Overall, with great service recovery, unhappy customers aren’t just a cost of doing business. They’re a huge opportunity that can benefit your business with the right strategy and phone skills.
For the proactive customer-centric business, resolving the complaint isn’t the end of the process. Complaints should be analysed and examined to figure out root causes and how they could be avoided in the future. This ties into a larger process of continual improvement across the business, ensuring the customer experience is always evolving.
Implement Call Ownership
Call answering is intrinsically linked with call ownership.
Many companies fail to address this vital element in their sales and service skills and their customer experience suffers because of it.
If you’re not familiar with the concept, we’ll use an example we’re sure you’ll be familiar with.
A customer has called up with a query and Agent A answers the phone. Agent A isn’t sure, but another department will know. They tell the customer they will email them the information once they have it. After the call, Agent A emails the other department.
The department takes a while to pick up the email. Customers aren’t their priority after all. But they do eventually email it back to Agent A.
They don’t know Agent A is on holiday by the time it’s gone back to them. Agent B, who is covering, sees the email. They don’t know what it’s in regard to, so they ignore it.
The customer calls back a week later and Agent C answers the phone. What was once a query is now a complaint. Agent C tells them they’ll look into it. But Agent A is still away and their manager is unavailable that day. They drop their manager an email and assume it will get resolved at some point.
By this point, the customer is exasperated. They’ve left a bad review on Google and TrustPilot.
They’re further antagonised by the auto-response they receive on their reviews with an empty apology, asking them for contact details the company already has on record, so they can look into it further.
Now ask yourself... who’s fault was the complaint?
No one’s really. It’s a culture problem.
Specifically, a company culture lacking in ownership. If any of the employees involved had taken ownership over the query, it could have been resolved.
Agent A could have met with the department. Agent B could have called the customer to get more information. Agent C could have made resolving it a priority.
Without call ownership, issues multiply and bad customer service reigns supreme.
Whereas in a company where employees are encouraged to take ownership in customer service, your customers reap the rewards. Problems are resolved faster, customers are happier and your business productivity and profitability improve.
Much of call ownership comes down to empowering your employees and increasing their well-being.
An unmotivated, burned out employee who feels like the company doesn’t care about them is unlikely to want to take ownership. A happy employee who is shown they are valued and appreciated within a business is far more likely to take ownership.
With that foundation established, call ownership comes down to communication through powerful conversations. It doesn’t mean simply taking the blame for the company, but expressing and showing that you personally are concerned with a customer’s issue and you have a genuine desire to resolve it.
Overall, call ownership is a phone skill that needs developing not solely by individual employees, but across the company.
Call Handling Skills Improve the Customer Experience
Business phone skills also extend to the way you handle calls as it impacts the overall customer experience you deliver.
Let’s say you call up a company with an issue.
You’re not annoyed when you originally call them. But then you’re on hold for half an hour before you even speak to a human.
When you finally do speak to a human, they tell you you’ve gone through to the wrong department and they’ll transfer you. You wait on hold, again, before you eventually get through just to be cut off.
Obviously, this is an extreme example of bad call handling skills. But it happens a surprising amount, even in large, well-established companies. Perhaps even more so for these companies.
This is often because companies simply outsource this aspect of their business without giving it much analysis or thought. But for smaller and medium-sized companies, this process is dealt with internally and should be given due attention and consideration.
There are clear call handling skills that can be taught to employees. These include things like manners and tone, but also summarising the call, as well as internal knowledge of where to direct calls to.
Companies who want to follow call handling best practices should therefore be analysing call handling regularly to see where it can be improved and where the weaknesses lie.
They can use this information to develop phone skill best practices which can be shared with employees to ensure the best possible customer experience every time.
Call Management Skills Transform Customer Service
Call management looks at the bigger picture of phone skills within your business. It’s an important - and often overlooked - aspect of your process.
Businesses should be reviewing their call management processes continually.
Without knowing the unique ins-and-outs of your business, it’s difficult to say exactly what this would look like in your business.
It could mean assessing how inbound and outbound calls are managed and whether it could be done better. It could be reviewing your current call management software to see whether it needs to upgrade to more modern technology. It could be researching new call management features which could improve your customer service.
There is no one size fits all rule to call management skills, but there are many best practices which may help your business improve your phone skills overall.
Call Closing Techniques to Maximise Profitability
Last, but by no means least, the close.
Many sales people will tell you the close is the most important aspect of the call. They’re not wrong either, it’s a vital phone skill.
There are literally hundreds of call closing techniques to pick from. From the tried-and-tested to more phone sales skills.
These vary depending on the type of calls you’re dealing with; whether it’s a sale, a lead or a service call. But having set processes in place for the different types of calls will ensure you’re not missing out on opportunities.
This is why so many businesses have scripts with a variety of customer service closing statements for their agents to pick from to deliver better customer service.
From the most famous, “is there anything else I can help you with?” to summarising the call, these scripts have their place. This said, they do need regular evaluation.
Companies should ask themselves how well ending scripts fit with their ethos and whether there are better options available. Just because something is working okay doesn’t mean it couldn’t work better.
The Follow Up
The nature of the 21st century customer means the close is no longer really the close.
Customers interact with brands across many different channels and platforms, creating a omnichannel experience. Because of this, the customer service follow up has never been more important.
Whether this is sending a thank you email, asking for a review or offering an incentive to purchase again, it’s so important that your company doesn’t miss this vital step of the process.
Automated marketing can help you manage these aspects to ensure you don’t miss key follow ups. This can extend the lifetime value of your customer and ensure your customer service is bar none.
Get Sales and Service Phone Skills Training
So there you have it, basic phone skills 101.
But knowledge is just half the battle. You need to implement all these changes. Not only that, but you need to implement them in a way that is both manageable and sustainable.
It’s no easy feat.
That’s where we come in. Awardaroo can help you improve your phone skills with our unique telephone sales and service training course.
Our course is bespoke. This means we get to know your business and the unique challenges you’re facing. We then take all of this into consideration when planning your training programme to best help your employees reach their full potential.