Take these simple steps to reduce customer phone frustrations

One of the most often-cited complaints from customers involves their experience with business telephone communications. Poorly configured automated systems, flawed voice mail practices, and mishandled calls by employees can drive customers and partners to write you off just on the strength of one bad experience. Here are some easy ways to make sure that doesn't happen.

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On March 4, in the Help Desk blog, I penned my first contribution: "What bothers you when you are a customer?" It generated more than 100 comments. Several of those comments, not surprisingly, dealt with telephone frustrations.

Whether your customer is calling the help desk or the CIO, your telephone system reflects on the IT organization. The last thing you want is for your phone system to aggravate an already unhappy caller. The good news, though, is that creating a positive experience takes relatively little effort. Here's how.

Automated systems

Automated telephone systems, like sushi, the Dallas Cowboys, and country music, are either loved or hated. One of the biggest aggravations for callers is the dial-by-name feature — but the aggravation factor can be significantly reduced with proper setup.


First of all, callers need to know how to reach this feature. Take a moment to review your main greeting. Make sure it gives correct instructions on how to reach dial-by-name. This advice sounds obvious, but I have seen too many phone systems that neglect to tell callers how to do this.

After the caller presses the right buttons to reach the requested party, the system should announce the name of that party before connecting. Callers want to be sure that they're being connected to the right person. A lack of this announcement, coupled with a voice mail greeting that omits the person's name, could result in a misplaced message.

When your system announces the name of the requested party, make sure it does so as the person's "real name." Don't make the caller hear a letter-by-letter announcement, as some systems provide. Callers might be okay if the person they're calling is film director A-n-g L-e-e. They would get really annoyed, though, if they're calling conductor M-s-t-i-s-l-a-v R-o-s-t-r-o-p-o-v-i-c-h.


If you have an after-hours greeting, make sure it includes your normal hours of operation, so that callers know when they can reach a live person.

Don't rely on the caller to end a call

Make sure your system can end calls. Suppose you have a toll-free number for customers. Suppose further that your system does any or all of the following:

  • Repeats the main menu options indefinitely (i.e., loops infinitely) if the caller does nothing (don't laugh; I've seen and heard it)
  • Rings indefinitely at an extension because that extension lacks voice mail
  • Rings indefinitely if a caller "zeros out" of a voice mail greeting during off hours, because the system isn't smart enough to recognize the off-hours condition

Now, suppose your caller is the rodeo cowboy that country artist George Strait sings about in "I Can Still Make Cheyenne" — the one whose wife just told him not to come home:

He left that phone danglin' off the hook
Then slowly turned around and gave it one last look
Then he just walked away...

Suppose that cowboy just called your system. What did he pay? Nothing. What might you pay? Perhaps the national debt of Argentina.

Screening calls

How many times has someone — your boss or a customer — browbeat you for something that was needed "right now"? A week later, though, you see that product or effort was unused. Why would this situation upset you? Would it be because you worked hard, but nothing was done with your work, and you feel it was done for nothing?

Avoid doing the same thing with callers. In particular, if you screen calls — that is, you ask the caller's name — make sure you do something with that information, and make sure the caller knows you've done something. Show that you are adding value and are not simply a conduit.

When asking for the caller's name, ask politely, as in, "Who may I say is calling?" rather than brusquely: "Who's calling?" Once you hear the name, use it to address the caller. Until or unless told otherwise, use the honorific "Mr." or "Ms.," along with the surname of the caller.

Don't surprise the caller with voice mail. The caller has asked for a particular person. You have done what you were supposed to do, that is, asked politely for the caller's name. At this point, you're unsure whether the requested party is available.

What if the party is unavailable? If you simply transfer the caller and then go on to do something else, the caller will probably get the party's voice mail greeting. So the caller will think, "What was the point of giving my name, when all they do is put me in voice mail?"

Instead, check the extension yourself. If the party is unavailable, and you start to hear the voice mail greeting, come back to the caller and let that caller know. Give the caller options, either to leave a voice mail message, to leave a paper message, or to call back later.

If the party is available, give him or her the caller's name. After all, you asked for it, so make use of that information by passing it to the requested party.

If you are the requested party, and the receptionist has told you the name of the caller, you too should make use of the name. Greet that person by name: e.g., "Good morning, Mr. Smith." Don't use your standard greeting, "Hello, this is [your name]." Greeting the caller by name saves time because the caller doesn't have to repeat his or her name. More importantly, the caller feels important and appreciates that something was done with the name information.

General voice mail tips

Record your own greeting. When I call a person and get a voice mail greeting, it's usually the voice of that person... usually. Sometimes, though, I will call (generally) a male executive, and a female voice will answer with a greeting the following:

"You have reached the voice mail of John Jones. Please leave a message and he will call you back."

What kind of message does this greeting send? Maybe different from what you intend. You are telling the world (whether you mean to or not):

"I'm incompetent. I don't know how to set my own voice mail greeting (but you still should trust me with your multimillion dollar CRM implementation)."

This image is hardly one a CIO should convey.

Also be sure to include your name in your voice mail announcement to avoid confusion, especially in misdialed calls.

Be helpful when you refer calls. If your voice mail greeting refers callers to another person (perhaps because you're going to be away), make sure you include that person's extension. Don't just say, for example, "If you need assistance, please call Joe Brown." Say instead, "...please call Joe Brown at extension 2102."

Be clear about who you're referring callers to. Two years ago, I met two women I thought were mother and daughter. I kept quiet, however, and later learned that they were sisters. Had I said anything, I would have been in big trouble. In the same way, be aware of what callers may infer about your relationship to people you refer callers to. If you refer callers to another person, those callers most likely will assume that the second person is your subordinate, or perhaps a peer. They are unlikely to assume that the person is your superior.

If you do refer callers to a superior make sure (in addition to getting that person's permission, of course) that your greeting is clear on the relationship. Don't just say, "Please contact Joe Brown at extension 2102." Say instead, "Please contact my manager Joe Brown at extension 2102." If a caller speaks to your superior thinking he or she is your subordinate, it could prove embarrassing for everyone.

Next time, I'll offer some additional tips on avoiding phone frustration.

Customer problems?

Do you have a particular customer service challenge or question? Drop me a note describing the situation (feel free to disguise the identities of those involved), and I'll see if I can offer any advice.


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.

About Calvin Sun

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

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