Poor telephone habits can drive customers away

When a customer is on the phone, you want to be sure to make a positive impression -- courtesy and efficiency go a long way toward building loyalty. Unfortunately, we sometimes create the opposite impression by misusing our speakerphones, answering calls when we're too busy to be polite, or unwittingly allowing inappropriate remarks to be heard by customers on the other end of the line. Here are some simple guidelines to help you steer clear of relationship-damaging missteps like these.

This article is also available as a PDF download.

In my previous column, I mentioned that comments to my Help Desk blog entry on customer annoyances reflected a considerable amount of frustration with telephones. In this column, I'll continue with that theme, providing additional telephone tips that can help reduce the chances of annoying or alienating your customers.


Use speakerphones with care. Sure, using the speakerphone lets you do other things while talking. But remember, the speakerphone allows others at your end to hear the call — a fact that might bother the person on the other end of the line. In addition, using a speakerphone might offend the person you're talking to, giving the impression that you're too important for him or her.

It's okay to use a speakerphone in certain cases, such as when you've called a number and the phone is ringing or the automated system has put you on hold (along with that irritating music). Because you're not talking to a "live" person, and as long as you keep the volume to a reasonable level (so as not to bother your officemates), using the speakerphone should be fine. However, once someone comes on the line, be prepared to abandon the speakerphone in favor of the handset.

Here are some basic speakerphone etiquette rules:

  • Ask permission from the caller and explain why you need to use the speakerphone. For example, perhaps you are attempting to resolve a technical problem and would like the caller to talk to your staff at the same time. Once people realize what's in it for them, chances are they'll go along.
  • Identify others at your end who are listening.
  • Make sure the volume is reasonable, or even better, conduct the conversation in a conference room or private office, rather than an open cubicle or desk.

Answering the phone during meetings

Have you ever wondered about people who answer the phone by telling you, "I can't talk right now, I'm in a meeting?" I'm tempted to ask them, "Well if this meeting is so important, why did you answer the phone in the first place?" If you're in a meeting and you answer the phone and make this statement, you probably will similarly annoy not only the caller, but other people in the meeting with you.

So how do you handle the situation where the phone rings when you're in a meeting? Probably the best thing to do is let the call go into your voicemail or let your assistant answer, if you have one. If you are expecting someone to call you as part of the meeting, do the following:

  • Tell the other people in your meeting about this fact.
  • If the "wrong" person calls, apologize and explain that you were expecting a call into the meeting from another person. This resolves the "why did answer in the first place?" question for that caller and reduces the chances that you'll create a negative impression.

Speak softly in a common office area

Theodore Roosevelt said, "Speak softly and carry a big stick." I'm saying, "Speak softly when you're in a common area of the office." The typical example is the help desk area, in a large room with a number of cubicles or desks. Be careful about talking too loudly when you're around the on-duty staff. The people the staff members are talking to might be able to hear your background conversation. In particular, if you're talking (possibly negatively) about a particular customer, and that customer happens to be on the phone with a staff person, there could be a problem.

Finish talking before you pick up or hang up

Callers should receive your full attention. Therefore, before picking up the phone, finish any conversations you're having with a co-worker. Don't pick up the phone while talking to that co-worker. The caller might be annoyed by hearing the tail end of that conversation. If that other conversation concerned that caller, and the caller hears it, you might have a huge problem.

Similarly, after saying good-bye to a caller, keep your mouth shut until you hang up the phone. Refrain from making comments about the call, or more seriously, making negative comments (typically, one-word expletives) about the caller, as the handset is being replaced. Chances are, the caller will hear you.

Conference calls

A few years ago, two male workers at Philadelphia Gas Works (PGW) were dismissed following a conference call with their female supervisor. The two workers were in one location and the supervisor was in a different location. The workers, believing the call had ended, began making negative comments about the supervisor. Unfortunately, they either neglected to shut off the telephone system or thought incorrectly that the system had shut itself off. The supervisor heard everything said about her, and she took action.

Make sure that when you leave a conference call that you really HAVE left it. Be careful to hit the right buttons to disconnect you from the call. Otherwise, you may suffer the same distress as the PGW workers.

Conversely, be aware that others on a conference call might only appear to have left. I heard once about a person who said good-bye to everyone on the call, but instead of hanging up (or hitting the hang-up or disconnect button), he hit the Mute button. Everyone thought he'd hung up because they couldn't hear him or others with him. However, he could still hear them and gained valuable information, though underhandedly.

A little caution, consideration, and common sense will go a long way toward saving you from embarrassment and preventing your customers from becoming irritated.


Calvin Sun works with organizations in the areas of customer service, communications, and leadership. In addition to writing this column, he contributes to TechRepublic's Help Desk Blog.


Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox