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The Perfect Answer: The Ideal Way to Answer Your Phone and Make a Great Impression

By Peter Lyle DeHaan , PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan-answer your phone

How often have you called a company and wondered if you reached the right number? All too often, busy people answer calls hurriedly, haphazardly, or incompletely. Or perhaps the receptionist seems out of breath after spitting out a lengthy, tongue-twisting greeting. Also, it’s vital that an organization answers every call the same way.

There are three parts to the ideal phrase to answer the phone:

1) Greeting

The greeting is simply “Good morning,” Good afternoon,” or “Good evening.” During the holiday season, “Happy holidays,” or “Season’s greetings” may be used. The greeting lets the caller know someone has answered and that it’s time to listen. If the caller lacks focus or needs to adjust his or her ears to catch your phrasing, pace, or accent, the greeting gives time for this to happen, but the phrase is also not critical if it’s missed. Lastly, the greeting serves to set a positive tone for the call.

2) Company Identity

The company identity is simply the name of your organization, such as, “Acme Industries.” It lets callers know who they have reached, thereby confirming they dialed correctly. In general, state the company name as people outside your organization typically say it. Therefore, you should generally drop legal suffixes, such as Inc, LLC, and Ltd, or other formal elements that would confuse the caller rather than clarify. For the same reason, don’t shorten or abbreviate the company name, either. Saying “AI” when everyone knows you as “Acme Industries” serves no useful purpose.

3) Your Name

The final element is your first name. This adds a valuable personal touch. It’s much easier for a caller to get mad at an anonymous voice, than a real person with a name. Using your name also allows you to build a rapport and establish a personal connection with the caller. As the last word of the perfect answer phrase, it is also the one most easily remembered by the caller. Omitting your name implies a lack of personal interest. Ending with your name signals confidence and competence, which are critical in problem-solving and customer service situations.

Avoid Unnecessary Addendums

It’s all too common for people to tack on the ridiculous phrase, “How may I direct your call?” A direct response to this senseless question is “quickly and accurately.” This is not effective communication; drop pointless embellishments.

Putting these elements together results in the perfect answer:

“Good morning, Acme Industries, this is Fred.”

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Business Articles

A Shocking Experience

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

When I call a contact center, I pay special attention to what happens. I can’t help it. Over the years I have evaluated and critiqued enough calls that it has become habit, even though I no longer need to do so. Fortunately, this tendency provides anecdotal fodder for articles and the occasional righteous rant.

One call I made, years ago, indeed, shocking, not for any deficiency or appalling behavior, but because it was so good. Sadly, I have become so conditioned to sub-par and ineffective phone support, that I am surprised when professionalism and efficacy actually occur how—disheartening. This whole realization was quite shocking to me. I have spent most of my adult life passionately working in and diligently promoting an industry from which I have begrudgingly acquiesced to accept mediocrity.

Here’s my saga. A few weeks ago before that, I received a subscription invoice for a magazine I had never heard of nor received. This is not unexpected; it seems to happen often. I politely wrote “please cancel” on the invoice and returned it in their pre-paid envelope, hoping to be done with the whole affair.

A few days later, the magazine arrived. I looked at it and realized that it might be worth reading. I enjoyed it and wished I hadn’t cancelled it. (In retrospect, it is likely that, on a whim, I did request it, but I have no recollection of doing so.)

I pondered what to do. I wasn’t fair that the publisher had sent me the magazine in good faith but wasn’t going to be paid for it. I also wanted to ensure that I received future issues without interruption. Frankly, I wondered if I had the fortitude to contact the publisher in order to attempt to resolve it.

Notice that I said “attempt to resolve it.” Overall recent experience had so numbed my expectations that I was doubtful of a successful outcome. How many phone calls would I need to make? How many times would I be transferred to the wrong person or department? Would I be cut off or hung up on? Would I be told to call another number and then another, only to be referred back to the first? Would I be able to understand and effectively communicate with the agent? Would they comprehend the situation and know what to do? Could I end up making matters worse?

These questions permeated my mind, and they were all based on frustrating and fruitless experience. I gathered my resolve, actually blocking out time to focus on this formidable task.

Thankfully, things got off to a good start when I quickly located a clearly labeled “subscription number” number in the magazine. It was a toll-free call, which was another bonus. Even so, I took a deep breath before I dialed the number.

I began counting rings (an old habit). One ring, two… and it was answered! The agent was both pleasant and professional. She seemed happy to talk to me. She was easily understandable, speaking the same dialect of English as me. I explained my dilemma and she immediately grasped it. No transfer, no pondering, no delays. “I can take care of it,” she said confidently. And she did.

Pleasantly and effectively resolving an issue on the first call isn’t hard to do, but in my experience it is shockingly rare.

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Business Articles

The Myth of Self-Service

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

The idea of self-service has existed in many industries for years and even decades. This includes self-serve gas pumps, checking your own groceries, buying airline tickets online, and banking.

Gas Stations

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan, self-service

First, let’s consider gas stations. Unless you are a 30-something driver or younger, you probably remember the days of full-service gas stations. In fact, they were called service stations, because service was what they were all about. These service stations almost always had one mechanic—or more—on duty. For smaller stations, the mechanic was often the one who filled your car with gas.

Here’s how it worked: When you pulled into the station, a strategically placed air hose pneumatically activated a mechanical bell. This alerted the attendant that a customer had arrived, and he would scurry out to greet you.

Staying in your car, you would roll down your window and make your request, “Fill it up, please.” Often you and the attendant were on a first name basis. As he was filling your tank, he would wash your front windshield and sometimes the back. Next, he would offer to check your oil. (Unless it had just been changed or recently checked—which he remembered.) That’s not all. He would glance at your tires, and if one appeared under inflated, he would whisk a tire gauge out of his pocket and check the pressure, putting in more air if it was warranted. He would also make recommendations based on other observations, such as, “Looks like you’re ready for new front tires,” “That muffler doesn’t sound too good,” or “We better at a look at those brakes soon.”

Yes, this was a full-service operation, deftly suggesting up-sells (“Do you want to try Premium today”) and cross-sell opportunities (“When do you want your oil changed”)—though this wasn’t what it was called; it was just good customer service. Today, with self-service, we are left on our own to keep our car in good operating condition and we only see our mechanic when something is wrong.

In an apparent effort to save on labor or cut overhead, some stations began offering “self-service” pumps. In order to entice the public to pump their own fuel, the self-serve gas was priced lower. Most people weren’t too interested, at least until the price of gas jumped and the discount increased along with it. Still some people swore they would never fill their own tanks, but over time they were forced to do so as full-service pumps became scarcer. The truth is, most people didn’t want self-serve, but they reluctantly did so to save money or were forced to when it became the only option. Today, self-serve gas pumps are an expected way of life, but that merely happened because it became the only option.

Food

Then there is the grocery store. I’ll admit that I don’t often find myself there—and when I do, it’s only to buy a couple of things—but I do gravitate towards the self-checkout. For a few items it can be faster—providing everything works correctly. Self-checkout can also be irritating, repeatedly barking out annoying instructions and getting obstinate if it thinks you did something wrong.

Given a choice between a next-in-line cashier and self-service, I will always opt for a person. I find it to be faster and less frustrating. I can’t imagine the time-consuming task of doing a large order via self-checkout. However, when the cashier lines are long, which can often be the case, I gladly duck into the self-checkout and hope for the best. In this case, self-service wins out when full-service lines (that is, queues) grow too long. It’s not that it’s preferred, but merely the least objectionable.

Travel

Nowadays, everyone books airline tickets online. It doesn’t save me time, but it does afford the opportunity to check every conceivable option, finding the ideal balance between cost and convenience. Maybe I scrutinize my options too closely, but I would gladly spend an hour researching flights, times, and airports if it will save me from a long layover, an extra night in a hotel, or a couple of hundred dollars on a fare. Still, the days of calling a travel agent, giving her my travel itinerary in a few seconds, and having tickets arrive the next day provide an appealing invitation to return to full-service.

Banking

The banking industry is full of choices. I can select from two full-service options and three self-serve options. For transactions warranting full-service, I can go to the nearest branch or phone their call center. For self-serve, I can use an ATM, bank-by-phone (using an IVR system), or access my account via the Internet. The option I select is primarily a result of what I need to accomplish, but my focus is on speed and convenience. It’s nice to have options: self-service for some things, full-service for others.

The Self-Serve Bust

The dot-com boom in the late 1990s brought the prospect of self-service to an unwise conclusion. In simplistic terms, their generic business plan (aside from burning through mass quantities of investor cash) was that they would create a scalable website, which could be quickly ramped up as demand for their product or service grew.

Customer service would not be an issue (or so they thought) as they would offer self-service options that were likewise scalable. There would be no massive call centers to build and no agents to hire. Basically there would be no people to help their customers; computers would do all that via the Internet. It didn’t work. The few dot-coms that survived did so because they realized they needed to offer more options than just self-service.

Call Centers to the Rescue

Even with this history and varying degrees of success, it doesn’t imply that self-service is the way to go, especially when responsive call centers can surpass the generally mediocre effectiveness of self-service. Yes, there are times when self-service is the answer; there are also times when it is not.

When properly implemented (which means it must be user-friendly, accessible, and reliable), people will opt for self-service only if it can increase timeliness, save money, be more effective, or is more available. If it can’t do at least one of these things, people will only do self-service if they have to—complaining about it all the while. In reality, most people don’t really prefer self-service. What they want is full-service that is friendly, accessible, and reliable. In our global economy, that often means they want a call center—a good call center.

Self-service is generally not selected because it is the superior option, but because it is the least objectionable one. So what is the ideal solution? It’s a full-service call center, not with self-service options, but with people. Think about it: who would prefer to spend an hour on the Internet, scrolling through FAQs or waiting for an automated response to an email query, if they could just pick up the phone and quickly get a response?

This means a call center done right. What does that look like? Ideally it is:

  • Calls answered quickly
  • No busy signals
  • First-call resolution
  • No transfer
  • No queue or short queue (or a creative, entertaining on-hold program with accurate traffic updates)
  • Trained, knowledgeable, personable, and polite representatives
  • Correct responses
  • Consistent experience

With that, why would anyone want self-service? Why would they ever switch to a different company? A call center, done right, will beat self-service every time.

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Business Articles

False Assumptions

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

When people ask what I do for a living, I reply that “I publish magazines and websites for the call center industry.” Their responses are varied, as well as interesting. For some people, their eyes immediately glaze over, and they change the subject.

Others key in on the word “publish,” offering to submit their writing, regardless of suitability. Incredibly, I have been asked to publish short stories, poems, and even song lyrics in my trade magazines! Another group focuses on the word “website” and enthusiastically shares their latest triumph, as in, “Yea, I’m uniquely tapping Java to develop scalable websites guaranteed to revolutionize the vertical widget industry.” That’s when I change the subject.

The Call Center Industry

For those who zero in on the phrase “call center,” their queries predictably fall into one of four areas. The first is an unthinking reaction from those who wish to blame me for the dinnertime interruptions they receive via the telephone. This provides a chance to engage in some one-on-one industry PR work.

Unsolicited Calls

First, I agree with them that unsolicited calls are annoying. Then I assure them that I don’t encourage the calling of people who wish not to be contacted. These pronouncements surprise them. From that vantage, I can then attempt to educate them about the laws and their rights. Soon they’re nodding in agreement—though perhaps just to get me to stop talking.

Voice Mail

The second category of responses is from those who associate a particular call center technology with the industry. They may interject, saying, “Well, I just keep pressing zero until I get a real person,” or “Why do I have to enter my account number and then give it again when the person answers?” Again, I have an opportunity to educate.

Do Not Call

The next group wants to grill me about the “Do-Not-Call” (DNC) legislation. This response is especially prevalent after a deluge of automated political calls being made as a prelude to elections.

My inquisitors snicker with resigned acquiescence as I share that the politicians exempted themselves from the calling restrictions that they foisted upon everyone else. I am able to explain about “existing business relationships” and inform them that they can request to be added to the company’s internal “do not call” list. At this point, I’m not sure that they’re listening, perhaps they just want to vent—and I am the handy target.

Accents

The fourth response is the most common and perplexing. They make a statement along the lines of “I never can understand those people in other countries.”

“How do you know that the agent was in another country?” I probe. “Did you ask them?”

“Well, no, but I can tell ’cause they have an accent,” is their emphatic retort.

Their false assumption has snared them. They think that if an agent has an accent, they must be offshore; conversely an agent with no discernible accent must be in the United States. Ergo only offshore agents have hard to understand accents. [bctt tweet=”I have never talked with an offshore agent without an accent— apparently if someone has no accent, I subconsciously assume that they’re US-based!” username=””]

I have conversed with heavily accented agents who are US-based—some I understood and others were a struggle. Conversely, I have talked to accented offshore agents—some I acceptably communicated with, while others were a futile effort.

However, I have never talked with an offshore agent without an accent—apparently if someone has no accent, I subconsciously assume that they’re US-based!

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Business Articles

Dealing with Cancellations

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

How does your company handle cancellations? Do you allow anyone to process terminations, quickly and without hassle? Or do you have a specific “cancellation” strategy, with a team assigned and trained to follow an exact protocol? Either approach has its strengths and limitations; both fall short of the customer’s best interest.

I once signed up for a credit card simply because of its rewards package. Although I built up a great number of points, I never redeemed them. Over time, my priorities changed and I realized I would never use them. I called to see what else they could offer. Was there another reward incentive I could switch to? Could I get cash back? How about merchandise? Are there other options they could offer?[bctt tweet=”How does your company handle cancellations?” username=””]

The answers were “no,” “no,” “no,” and “no.”

“I guess my only option is to cancel the card,” I ventured.

“Is that what you want to do?” the agent replied matter-of-factly.

“Let me think about it,” I evaded, seeking to delay the decision.

It took awhile, but eventually all uses for that card were switched to another. I called again, this time to cancel. I was transferred to the cancellation department. This agent feigned shock at my intent and tried to dissuade me. She offered a lower rate, better terms, and more flexibility on the rewards package. Her arguments would have retained me as a cardholder, if not for the fact that they were offered too late. I cancelled the card.

This scenario has repeated itself on numerous occasions: with my cell phone provider, satellite and cable service, long distance, and local phone service. Each time, the agents answering the phone are not empowered to take steps to retain me as a customer. Each time I make careful plans, arranging for service from their competitor. When I call back to terminate my service; the cancellation department would step in and suddenly sweeten the deal. Often they offer the concessions that I wanted—and which I suspected were available all along—but not presented by their front line staff.

They express their regrets over my decision and ask me to call back if I change my mind. If only their solutions had been offered earlier in the process. Then they could have retained my patronage and saved me the aggravation of switching.

The solution seems obvious. Just pretend you are going to cancel so that you can get to the “cancellation” department on the initial call and obtain their best deal. I tried that and it went like this:

“I want to cancel my service.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Let me see what I can do.” I wait, expecting to be transferred. After a few seconds, the agent announces, “Okay, your service has been cancelled. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

I am too embarrassed to ask that it be reinstated, so I thank the agent and hang up.

In the first examples, the staff was trained and empowered to retain me as a customer were interjected too late into the process; my decision had been made, the alternative in place, and my call was mere formality to end the process.

In the latter scenario, the agent was empowered, but apathetic and untrained. She was highly efficient, but completely ineffective.

There has to be a better way.