How to interact with customers on the phone

Published August 5, 2016
Last updated August 5, 2016

The phone, also referred to as the voice channel in customer service, remains a very popular way for your customers to contact you for support. It’s immediate and direct and it gives customers the chance to ask and to quickly get answers to any follow up questions they may have. It’s second only to live chat for high customer satisfaction ratings.

To make your phone interactions with customers as smooth and satisfying as possible, and sharpen your customer service skills, follow these best practices.

Inform the customer if they’re being recorded. If calls are recorded by your system, you most likely are required to inform the caller of this. If your incoming call message does not do this for you, you’ll need to do it yourself. You might have to do this yourself for outgoing calls as well.

Repeat to clarify. If your connection is poor, or if you otherwise need clarification, repeat back what you think you heard, to get confirmation. Summarize. After the customer has given you their story, repeat it back to them in a succinct fashion to make sure you’ve understood it correctly. If your connection is really bad, you may want to ask the customer to spell out critical information (better than asking them to repeat it multiple times).

Communicate hold time. Before you put someone on hold (to look something up or ask a question, for example), get confirmation that it’s OK to do so. General rule: don’t leave a customer on hold more than 2 minutes without checking back, even if it’s to say it may take longer. If you know it will be an extended hold, tell them ahead of time. Offer to call back, if that’s preferable, or consider giving them the option to hang up and continue the conversation in a ticket if waiting will be inconvenient for them.

Mirror your customer’s tone. Try to match their tone and emotion. Mirroring doesn’t mean to yell if a customer is yelling at you. However, an initial increase in volume or intensity might help the interaction at the start. Then it’s important to quickly bring the intensity down. Be yourself, and mirror in the best way you can to create quick rapport.

Smile, literally. A smile can “translate” through the phone, causing your voice to sound friendly and warm. But be careful not to “smile” at a very angry customer. Wait until the time is right.

Reflect and validate. When a customer is upset or frustrated, they might not be able to take in what you say—even when it’s the right answer. First, really listen to help them calm down. After saying all they need to say, they’re more likely to be receptive to hearing the solution you offer—even when it’s not what they’d like to hear. You can find some practical advice for how to say no to customers in Tough talk: when “No” is the right thing to say to a customer.

Acknowledge the problem. Tell customers you understand their problem and the reason for their call. Make sure they feel heard. This demonstrates that you’re taking ownership of the issue that has caused the customer an inconvenience or some frustration.

Be patient, give the customer time. Give the customer the time they need when asking them to provide you with more information. Being patient also is useful when a customer is calling to complain. Allow them get their story out; interrupting them will only make them more upset. Let customers vent if they need to, even if you understand the issue right away. People often need to finish expressing themselves in their own way before they are ready to proceed.

Prepare an escalation plan. Know who you can escalate calls to if the caller asks to speak to a manager. If you’re a support manager, expect that you’ll need to do this sometimes, and at inopportune times. If no manager is available, apologize and escalate the ticket to a superior with a summary of the issue. Most importantly, don't take it personally if the customer wishes to speak to a manager.

Take notes as you go. This will help you capture the details of the customer’s issue (you might forget some details otherwise) and it will help to decrease the amount of time you spend in wrapping-up after the call has ended.

Use the phone to get unstuck. Sometimes text-based support interactions such as email and chat can stall because of too much back-and-forth (e.g., you’re asking the customer for some information and they’re not giving it to you), or things are getting heated in a ticket. Getting the customer on the phone can help by allowing you to clarify the information you need and ask follow-up questions. This also reminds the customer that you’re a real person and are there to help them.

Ask if it's a follow-up call. If the customer is calling to check on an existing issue that they've reported previously, merge the call ticket into the previous one, to keep the records together.

Check to see if the caller is already in your system. Calls from previously-unknown numbers might turn out to be from customers you already have a record with. Check to see if this customer already has another user record in your system (e.g. from an ticket created via email), and if so, merge the phone and email-based user records together, so that the user's tickets can be found in one place, and future calls will be attributed to them.

Ensure optimal voice quality. If you're using a VoiP provider such as Zendesk Voice, follow their recommendations for optimal voice quality. For example, wired connections and headsets tend to provide better voice quality than wifi-connected computer or Bluetooth-connected headsets.

Finally, check out this video (Shit support agents say) and you may learn some useful things to say to your customers, or not.

You can find best practices for supporting customers on live chat in Essential customer service skills: how to interact with customers on live chat and on social media in Essential customer service skills: interacting with customers on social media.

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