How To Treat Them Right On The Telephone

someone holding a rotary phone

Originally posted in March of 2003 for the Journal of Accountancy:

Monthly Checklist Series

Treat Them Right on the Telephone

Fostering a long-lasting client relationship starts from that very first contact someone makes with your firm. Here are 10 phone-etiquette tips to make sure you and your employees give all callers the five-star treatment.

Give a warm welcome. Be sure to identify your firm, your employer or department and yourself. In the greeting, let the last word your caller hears be your first name. Here’s an example of an effective greeting: “Good morning, accounts receivable, this is Mary.” Each person has a unique reason for calling, but all callers need some kind of help. Forcing them to give you data (such as account numbers) before they are ready can start a call off on the wrong foot. Instead, engage in a little small talk first—something like: “OK, Ms. Jones, I can help you with that. May I have your taxpayer number?”

Sound cheerful on the phone. Always use a pleasant tone of voice when interacting with callers–even on the days you don’t feel like it. When you smile as you answer that ring, it adds a positive edge to your salutation.

Provide an explanation. Typically, people don’t like to be put on hold but usually are more reasonable when they know why. Always ask their permission and tell them what you will be doing while they’re waiting. For example, you might say, “Could you hold for a moment while I check your file?” Before pressing the hold button, make sure they agree.

Be polite. Always remember to use a courtesy phrase such as “thank you” throughout the call, particularly when callers have given you permission to place them on hold and before you press the hold button. A little courtesy goes a long way toward making a positive first impression or maintaining positive client relations.

Take responsibility for transferring. Clients don’t enjoy being transferred multiple times when they phone your firm. Take the time to get callers to the right person on one transfer. Accomplish this by serving as liaison with a coworker before actually transferring. Tell your coworker the client’s name and reason for calling. Your coworker then either can accept the call or recommend another person. All the while the caller is safely in “phone limbo,” unable to hear what’s going on. Once you find the right person, get back to the client to say to whom he or she is being transferred and give that person’s direct phone number. Then, complete the transfer.

Keep emotions in check. If you encounter irate clients on the phone, stay cool and let them tell you what’s wrong. The worst thing you can do is to get upset and say something inappropriate. While callers are talking, jot down the facts and repeat them back when they finish. Confirming the facts tells clients you were listening carefully and helps calm them. Once the caller has related the problem, provide ample assurance your firm will resolve it and, if possible, a timetable for doing so.

Eliminate negative phrasing. Callers usually want to hear some form of the word yes (“Yes, we have a copy of your 2001 federal return,” for example). Words such as can’t, don’t or won’t not only are forms of no but also may sound as though you’re unwilling to help. Tell clients what can be done rather than what can’t. They will accept the information sooner and you will be able to move on to another call.

Fill the silence. Sometimes during a call you need to look up information or enter data into a computer, and this may cause some uncomfortable silence during the call. Clients can’t see what you are doing and will sometimes fill the silence with innocent chatter. You can help ease the wait by briefly explaining what you are doing. For example, say, “OK, Ms. Jones, I am looking up the invoice right now.” Callers usually will remain silent when they know what’s happening.

Don’t get lazy with voice mail. When leaving voice-mail messages, watch your pace and always include your name and phone number (said very slowly) early in the message. Continue with your message, then repeat your name and phone number at the end. This formula allows the recipient to verify the phone number without having to save the message and listen to it again.

Practice effective wrap-ups. The end of the call is as important as the beginning. The last words you say are what the client will remember the most. A good habit to get into is to summarize the call briefly (“I’ve got your request in, and Ms. Brown will get back to you this afternoon after 3 p.m.”), offer additional service (“Is there anything else I can help you with today?”) and give a personal, polite closing (“Thanks for your call, Mr. Thompson.”). Hang up last to avoid the risk of hanging up on the client if he or she suddenly remembers something else to discuss with you.

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