10 Telephone Differentiators

When it comes to great telephone skills, it’s important to think about both the mechanics and the semantics behind what defines great.  For businesses who manage a bank of phones or a call center, this is their reason for being and they generally have excellent skills due to their laser focus.  For the rest of us, the phones may be a much smaller segment of our overall process and may need some attention to be handled well.

With that said, use these 10 differentiating methods to guide your efforts and leverage your telephone skills into exceptional customer service.

  • Smile – you’ve heard it before, but because it can be heard and sensed over the phone, it’s definitely worth mentioning.
  • Show Patience – while this might seem obvious, we often underestimate it.  Our phone handlers often hear the same questions and concerns repeatedly, so rushing or interrupting sometimes happens accidentally and as a result of their ability to predict what the customer is going to say.  Just be mindful of this and remember to listen.
  • Be Attentive – in particular, keep in mind that the keyboard can be heard over the phone.  You should only be typing when the customer believes you are doing something for them.  If they are mid-story and hear you typing, they will know they don’t have your full attention.
  • Ask Questions – show engagement by asking follow up questions as the customer chats with you.
  • Be Conversational – avoid the awkward silence while you are looking something up and ask a thoughtful question about weather or plans the customer might have for the weekend.  It helps put them at ease and shows that you are considerate.
  • Acknowledge – use words and sounds of affirmation so that the customer can hear that you are engaged and understand what they are saying.
  • Listen and Repeat – summarize what a customer has described to make sure you have understood and to show them that you were listening.
  • Show Empathy (my favorite thing!) – let them hear you laugh or cringe or groan.  Make the same expressions and gestures you would if they were in front of you because they can hear it over the phone!
  • Provide a Warm Handoff – make sure that if the customer’s question or concern requires the help of another person that you explain the situation to that person, and that they acknowledge that understanding the moment they hop on the line with the customer.  Making a customer repeat and relive an annoyance or a question is rude and silly when you can instead show consideration and be prepared to resolve when back on the phone.

I hope these tidbits have helped you and have given you something to bring back to your organizations!  Is anyone out there teaching the warm handoff method?  I’d love to know!


Keep Your Promises

Keeping your promises is essential.  This might seem obvious, but organizations fail at it every day because they don’t have system that makes it possible.  They often depend on employees to figure out how juggle the regular service required within their role while saying yes to little customer whims that are out of the scope of the norm.  Teaching them to say yes is a fantastic idea, but without a secure process to help them follow through it can backfire miserably.

I had to stop by a well-known cosmetics, fragrance, and beauty store last night to find myself a new hair product because I ran out of my favorite and then found that it had been discontinued.  Ugh.  One of roughly 3 shoppers in the store, the other customers and I were actually outnumbered by the employees.  I walked to the back of the store where the products were organized by brand in 6 (yes 6!) full rows.  I was looking for descriptions similar to my old one when an employee stopped and asked if she could help me.  I was so grateful that someone was going to rescue me from this little hell I’d found until I realized she knew about as much about the products as I did.

To her credit, she called on her headset to a coworker to help find something that would suit me, but her coworker never responded.  She then said she’d go find someone and ask while I continued to look around.  Unfortunately, after 10 minutes had passed and I was not approached by her or another associate for help, I felt ignored and walked out.  On my way I passed 4 associates socializing, including the one who said she’d return with help.  Clearly no one had prepared this young woman with the product knowledge to help me or the process to find someone who could.  Too bad for them; I’m spendy on my hair.  Set up for success and avoid this hiccup by considering these three thoughts from someone who has failed at it, done it right, and been the customer of both:

  • Make sure following through is a priority throughout the organization.  It is not enough to presume that staff, at any level, consider the significance of this unless it is an explicit part of the organization’s customer service plan and values.
  • Make sure there is an operational plan that supports follow through for your customer facing employees.  Maybe they have promised to return a call or email a customer a receipt – or maybe a customer is patiently awaiting your attention; it could be anything.  As they continue to help customers the promises can be forgotten or reprioritized which reflects poorly on the employee and the organization.

What do you do to make sure promises are kept and follow through is a priority?

Embracing the “We”

Accepting responsibility and taking blame are hard on the ego!  They are especially large and bitter pills to swallow when the fault is not our own.  The problem in an organization is that if employees are carrying a score card and keeping a tally, your customer service is surely floundering.  To flip that coin, if the organization’s performance is unbalanced and internal corrections are being overlooked it’s only a matter of time before employees are fed up and want to keep score.  Great leadership and accountability will solve many problems, and this is one of them.  Since those are really big concepts, let’s break the concept of “We” down strategically and then tactically.

Strategically, building this concept starts with sharing.  Everyone from top to bottom and all the way around get to celebrate victories and recover from setbacks together; employee ownership and responsibility then drive behavior and culture.  Taking ownership means that your people see themselves as an important piece of your puzzle.  They can actually see how their contribution produces the widgets or innovates the technology that makes your company successful.  If they feel that their contribution is far away from the end result, you’ll get performance that matches that distance.  The companies that continuously make appearances on the lists of best companies to work for are companies that have nailed this concept.

Tactically, teaching your customer-facing staff to gracefully and humbly accept responsibility on behalf of the organization regardless of where the hiccup occurred is of paramount importance.  This isn’t an inherent ability for most people.  There are born people-pleasers who figure this out early – but for the rest of your staff you’ll need to shape this behavior regardless of the size of your organization.  You need to know that when deserved or undeserved fury is unleashed upon one of your people, they have learned the skills to neutralize and regain that customer’s confidence.  The absolute first step to this, at all times, across all organizations and lines of business, is accepting responsibility.  Admitting failure and showing the customer that there is a united front there to fix the problem is the ideal.

Maybe it is a receptionist that can smooth the feathers of a long customer wait for a meeting.  Maybe it is a server in a restaurant who handles your botched meal remarkably well even though they had nothing to do with the preparation.   When people like what they do and for whom, the “We” becomes ownership, which becomes return customers.  Please share a success you’ve had or witnessed.

Listen UP

How are your organization’s listening skills?  Hearing is easy; we hear a lot of things – but hearing lacks intent.  Taking the step to process each thing individually, however, takes experience and strategy and effort.  If listening is something you are doing well or intending to improve, what platforms have you decided to employ?  Is it embraced as an overall organizational strategy?  Is it widely understood as an effective customer tool at all levels?



Listening means there is a desire to understand and an intent to improve, change, or resolve; listening is engaging with your customers.  Listening is remembering that although the concern may be minor and common, it can feel colossal to a customer and is deserving of your undivided attention.  I have a few suggestions that will help you best leverage your listening strategy into exceptional customer service results.

  • First and foremost, I’ll restate that it must be an organization-wide approach.  We have learned that the most successful customer service comes from organizations who embrace listening as a way of life and not just as a job duty of a department.  Proactive and anticipatory are the names of today’s game; if there is any lingering question about this, it should be squashed.   There is a very nice hotel/casino in Reno that I think does an excellent job of this.  Every single employee is taught to answer questions and assist whether it is within their job description or not.  If you want to know where a restaurant is located, you may ask the bathroom attendant and he or she will walk you there themselves – not just point and gesture at the general direction.  This is what I mean when I say organization-wide; customer service is everyone’s job.
  • Second, it should be part of your ongoing training, coaching and development strategies.  This strategy is not simply about writing it into a memo or putting it on a poster in the break room.  Constant feedback and shaping is what will solidify your culture.
  • Third, embrace technology.  Listening is more than waiting for a phone call and preparing someone to handle the concern.  Today, customers are just as likely to be talking about you as they are to be talking to you.  They can blog, Tweet, Yelp, TripAdvise, Facebook, hashtag and otherwise make or break your reputation.  Developing and actively engaging in social media is a great way to listen and is the only way you’ll hear everything being said.  Not understanding it is not a good excuse – so hit the books.  No Bullshit Social Media by Jason Falls and Erik Deckers is a great start.

There are a lot of opportunities to provide excellent service.  Listening at the organizational level is extremely basic, yet one of the most difficult strategies to master.  Who deserves a compliment for their mastery of this strategy?

Unlearning Entitlement to Improve Customer Service

Do you encourage and promote gratitude in your workplace?  Think about this a minute longer.  Are you simply thankful, or do you truly foster appreciation for your business among your workforce?  As a business owner or executive, you have plenty of direct incentive to be genuinely appreciative of customers.  An hourly or entry-level employee, on the other hand, may feel far more detached from this incentive.  In fact, many feel dependence on the organization without stepping back to look at how the organization survives.  You may feel frustration with the realization that employees don’t always make the connection between their paychecks and your customers – but the reality is that it is something you have to instill rather than expect.

The first step is to recognize the direct correlation between that blind spot and customer satisfaction.  We are very emotionally intelligent people; we can sense a lack of sincerity in service – and will continue to hunt for genuine appreciation of our business until we find it.  Once we identify this as a problem we can work to strategically eradicate it.  The second step is to change the culture and embrace the fact that you must sow the seeds before you can reap the harvest.  Helping nurture gratitude by translating knowledge, experience, and numbers into digestible pieces of training and leadership for your people is a great way to shape the customer service and customer appreciation that drives loyalty and growth for your business.

If you’re like many that I’ve had workforce discussions with, you are concerned, exasperated, and a little annoyed with what feels like rampant entitlement in the American workforce.  I have to admit that I too hop on this bandwagon from time to time.  It is challenging to have painstakingly earned merit badges on the road of delayed gratification and then manage people who think they can order those badges online and have them delivered overnight!  Understanding that experience isn’t just a category to pontificate about on a Word resume template, but the culmination of actual blood, sweat, tears, and time is something we consider to be quite obvious.

Well, this is a reminder that entitlement works both ways.  Not every generation or person or culture’s circumstances are the same, which means that we cannot demand that our people see things the way we do (although that does seem like a more efficient way to accomplish it!); we are not entitled to their buy-in – it too must be earned and learned.  Utilizing resources to unlearn entitlement and develop gratitude within your workforce is a fantastic and fruitful idea.

I could speculate on the causes of entitlement at length, but what I’m most interested in is how to best change that mindset and shape it around customer service for the benefit of business.  If you have thoughts, opinions, or experience in handling the entitlement conundrum I’d love for you to share!

Seeing Through the Eyes of Your Customers

What better way to become acquainted with your processes than to experience them firsthand?  Most executives and upper management engage at this level, yet neglect to bring other employees into the experience.  In larger organizations especially, employees may not have visited your website or called your 1-800 number.  They have not arrived and looked at each touch point as though they were a customer.  Interestingly, there is also a lot of research and opinion that support the fact that some of the best, most effective, and most innovative ideas come from your front-line employees; inviting their participation seems both useful and smart.

Making this type of training part of the on-boarding process has many benefits.  In addition to helping employees understand what customers hear, see, and experience, it helps encourage teamwork, pride, and engagement at all levels.  Understanding why an organization operates the way it does can be tremendously enlightening to staff.  It helps them balance the things they can control with the things they cannot with the customer experience in mind.

Here are a few ideas to consider.  Each of these can be a great education to your staff.  Instead of viewing their position as isolated, they can begin to see how they affect the entire organization and can better understand their duties and tasks.

  • Call Centers.  Have your call center employees ever called into your 1-800 number?  Do they know how many options are available to the customer and how they are chosen?  Do they know how many steps it takes before being placed on hold or connected to a person?
  • Retail Operations.  Have you ever removed an employee or group of employees from their station on a busy day and asked them to walk through the front door as a customer?  What would they change?  Where would they focus their efforts?  What does the customer see?  Are there employees available to help them?  Do they look frazzled or friendly?  How long are the lines?  Are your products organized or unsightly due to a busy day – do you have any left?
  • Office Environments.  What do your job applicants/candidates see and hear?  Is your receptionist knowledgeable and able to transfer calls to the correct people?  Is the call screening process considerate?  Are people greeted efficiently?

These are just a few ideas to put the idea in motion for your organization.  Whether it is your sales team, an installations team, receptionist, reservationist, manager, or any front-line employee, I would suggest making this an integral part of your new-hire and ongoing training efforts.  Having your people understand what every step is like can only benefit your organization, and having them do it with your direction is very empowering.  The only resource this utilizes is time, and it’s time that you’ll later agree was well spent!  Does your organization do this?  I would like to know more!

5 Customer Service Interview Questions You Should Ask

Behavioral interview questions will tell you a lot about your candidate!  While people can certainly prepare for what questions might be asked, it’s difficult to prepare a canned answer when you have to recall and recant a specific situation.  The big draw to these types of questions is based on the assumption that past behavior will dictate future behavior – if you like what you hear, you are likely to see it happen if you hire the person.


Behavioral interviewing is especially effective during the search for employees who deliver great customer service.  From call centers and receptionists to retail management and restaurants, a customer service question that begins with, “tell me about a time when…” or is otherwise open-ended tends to make room for the cream to rise to the top.  They usually elicit responses that either wow or throw up a big red flag.  In my experience, these (or a version of them) will make the hiring process more efficient and effective for you.

  1. What is your customer service philosophy?
  2. Tell me about a time when you lost a customer despite your best efforts.  What was the situation?  How did you try to resolve it?  What would you do differently next time?
  3. Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult customer. What made the person “difficult?”  Was their anger or upset warranted – why or why not?  How did you diffuse the situation and what was the outcome?
  4. Tell me about a time when you went the extra mile for a customer – doing something beyond the parameters of your job description.  What was your motivation?  What was the outcome?
  5. Tell me about a time when you have handled a long line of waiting customers.  How did you manage the line?  What techniques did you use to keep each customer happy?  How did you manage your stress?

After thinking about the potential responses, you can probably see how they so easily tell you what you need to know.  The best candidates will show genuine passion and an eagerness to make things right in their answers.  They will illustrate the distress of upsetting customers and the joy in pleasing them in their expressions and in each answer; the very best will unknowingly sprinkle some ownership into their answers.  Alternatively, the red flags are easy to spot because annoyance with customers is not an easy thing to hide.  They may try to throw the customer or their former employer under the bus rather than taking part or all of the responsibility, or may display a lack of empathy by being dismissive or exasperated as they describe the customer in their answers.

Hiring people who understand that customers are the reason your doors are open is vital; utilizing effective interview questions and techniques to help avoid trouble is priceless.  Do you have a favorite interview question that gets to the heart of customer service?  Please share!