Basic Business Telephone Skills

The telephone sits unobtrusively on your desk but it can dominate you unless you tame it! To use your telephone effectively, you need to manage its use. Outward calls should be scheduled to suit your timetable and that of your respondent. Inward calls should be filtered, if possible, so that you are not interrupted in the middle of other work. Once you are using the telephone you need to develop some procedures that ensure you get the most out of each call and that you do not waste time.

Scheduling outward calls
At the beginning of each day:

  • make a list of the calls you have to make
  • put them in order of priority (essential, desirable, those that can be rescheduled if necessary)
  • allocate times for each call trying, if possible, to bunch them and to bear in mind when each call is likely to be suitable for your respondent

For inward calls, decide when you are able to take calls without having the flow of your other work interrupted. Then, either tell your switchboard or secretary that you are not available for calls outside that slot unless they are absolutely urgent, or, you may have a list of people from whom you are willing to accept calls. If you do not have a switchboard or a secretary, then put a suitable message on your answer phone or any other answering service you use.

By scheduling your calls in this way, you will be able to give your full attention to them.

Appropriate greetings and endings
Appropriate greetings and endings to calls help build a good rapport and avoid misunderstandings and wasting time. The three elements of an appropriate greeting are:

  • identifying your company
  • giving your name and job title/department
  • asking how you can help the caller

When you close the call you should:

  • make sure that the caller has no more queries
  • thank the caller
  • let the caller put down the receiver first so they don’t feel you have cut them off

Gathering information
A telephone call is a purposeful activity. Your caller will have some objective in mind and you will need to elicit this objective as quickly and as clearly as possible. In a simple information-seeking call, all you need to do is ask for the caller’s name, address, telephone and fax numbers. However, in more complex situations, you need to develop your questioning techniques so that you obtain the salient facts. Let’s assume your caller has a complaint about a product your company has sold them. You need to:

  • ascertain the nature of the problem
  • verify that the product is one of yours and that warranty cover still applies
  • discover how the caller has been using the product and what steps they have taken to rectify the problem

Listening skills
Another skill in receiving telephone calls is the ability to listen properly. Passive listening is simply allowing the caller to talk and not taking any action to ensure we have the right message. By actively listening we mean first indicating to the caller that we are listening by interrupting in an encouraging manner—interruptions could be ‘yes’, ‘I see’, ‘Okay’, ‘right,’ ‘I know what you mean’, or they could be prompts to encourage the caller to say more: ‘is that true?’, ‘are you sure?’, etc. And secondly we mean asking questions or using prompts to ensure that the caller gives precise information so that the message we receive is accurate. This can be done by the use of wh- questions:

  • What color?/how many?/when will you arrive?/where shall we meet?
  • And by techniques such as echoing and reformulating.

Suggesting and verifying a course of action
Once you have an accurate picture of the situation, you are in a position to propose a course of action to your caller. You should:

  • outline the proposal and check that it is acceptable to the caller
  • confirm that they understand what is to be done

Here is an example of a call where active listening skills are used and a course of action is agreed:

A: Good morning, John Sharp speaking.
B: John, hello. Tony Mills from Mega deals here. I’ve got a problem with that last order…
A: A problem, did you say?
B: Yes, well the order was incomplete. We ordered 600 but when we checked the consignment, it was obvious that we hadn’t got them all.
A: So how many were you short?
B: Well, they came in boxes of 50 and we only had 8 boxes so we’re missing 200. The thing is, it wouldn’t normally be a hassle but you see…
A: When do you need the remainder?
B: By Monday; we must have them by Monday.
A: Immediately after the weekend, you say?
B: Well, we could just stretch to Tuesday but no later because…
A: Okay, leave it with me. I’ll get on to dispatch and make sure you get another 200 by Tuesday at the latest.
B: Thank you, I’ll call you back if there’s a further problem.

Take notes
If you handle a lot of calls each day, then it is essential to log each one under date and time. For all calls you should make a note of who rang, for what reason, and the action you agreed with times and details of address, telephone number etc.

Dealing with difficult callers
Sometimes a caller is very difficult, especially if complaining. First remember that this caller is a client, or potential client, so your handling of the call could result either in more business for your company or in the caller going to a competitor. Whatever the nature of the problem, don’t try to fob the caller off by disclaiming personal responsibility or by trying to pass the buck. What you should do is:

  • listen without interrupting
  • gather the facts and make a note of them
  • take their details so you can get back to them
  • sympathize with them and offer to act as fast as you can
  • apologize if you have made the mistake
  • stay calm even thought the caller is angry and possibly abusive.

Telephone etiquette
Just because you can’t see the caller, it doesn’t mean you have the right to suspend the normal rules of politeness. Be helpful to the caller even if the subject of the call is not strictly speaking your field of responsibility. This means trying to find someone who can help now, or someone who can ring them back later. Don’t put the caller on hold and then leave them suspended there indefinitely.

Remember too that you give out subliminal signals by the tone of your voice, the clarity with which you speak, how fast you speak, the pitch of your voice. You should always devote your full attention to the call; mistakes and misunderstandings will arise if you are doing something else at the same time. Even if the call is a difficult or heated one, stay calm; try to be helpful and never slam the phone down.

Things to avoid when on the phone
It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that because your caller can’t see you, they won’t be affected by what you are doing and what’s going on around you. Remember not to:

  • let it ring more than four times
  • eat and drink while talking on the phone
  • be too familiar
  • talk to someone else in your office
  • have too much background noise
  • speak too quietly or too loudly
  • speak too quickly.


For a teaching lesson plan for this lesson see:
Telephone Skills Lesson Plan

Categories Communication Skills

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