For Better Customer Service, Please Hang up the Phone

August 6, 2010

Phone calls used to be seen as private conversations, best held at home, behind closed doors. Even public phone booths had glass doors or metal walls so that a caller had some privacy. But as cellphones and smartphones have become ubiquitous, and we are reachable at anytime and anywhere, our conversations have become more public. And many argue that our manners have suffered as a result.

So, when do you take a phone call? When do you check your email? And when do you put your phone away? The rules for appropriate etiquette are still largely open for debate, as we juggle the supposed increased productivity of having a mobile phone, with the perceived rudeness of talking on it in public.

A couple of weeks ago, someone posted this photo to social news site reddit.

Please get off your cellphone sign.

While this picture was purportedly taken at a Dunkin’ Donuts in North Carolina, it’s not an uncommon sign or sentiment: “We will gladly take your order when you finish your phone conversation.” In other words, for better customer service, please hang up the phone.

The photograph on reddit quickly received more than a thousand comments. Some of the comments were tangential — why, for example, do signs in businesses tend to use strange capitalization and punctuation? (It is reddit, after all.) But within the cascade of responses there seemed to be agreement on one thing: being on the phone in a store might be very common; but it is also rude.

As one person commented, “I so wish we had this sign at the doughnut store where I work. Too often, customers talk on the phone and try to order by pointing at doughnuts. As you might imagine, most customers do not have laser fingers, and we generally have no idea what they’re pointing at.” This prompted the next commenter to wish for laser fingers, but to also agree that it’s a frequent annoyance.

For those who work in customer service, as cashiers at retail stores and restaurants for example, it happens all the time. And these folks know more than anyone else that trying to negotiate a business transaction with gestures leads to errors and miscommunication. Also, it’s just plain rude.

The thing is, there are options. Very few phone calls cannot be paused long enough to negotiate the check-out line.  Calls can also easily just go to voicemail. Or how about simply asking, “Can you hang on just a minute?”or “Can I call you back?”

And it’s not simply a matter of phone calls. As more people adopt smartphones, our interactions are also interrupted by text messages, email, and apps.

So while the rule book on phone manners stands to be updated, here’s one golden rule to use in the interim: be considerate. That’s the overarching rule for good behavior. And as we come to consensus what the rules of etiquette are around cellphones, if you must take a call, simply ask permission of those around you.

Speak up! Tell us how you handle your phone in public. How do you react to others on the phone? What do you think phone etiquette will become?