A voice on the telephone is often the first impression a future customer, potential client or stakeholder has of a company or organization. The tone, pleasantness and politeness of the individuals in their telephone communications are responsible for the image the company projects to the public.
No company wants the reputation of being arrogant, rude or uncaring, yet many do because of the way employees handle telephone calls. But how many CEOs ever assess the way calls are handled in their organizations? Some organizations even block public access by not listing telephone, fax or e-mail addresses on the letterhead of some corporate executives. This practice only exacerbates problems and speaks volumes about the company’s attitude.
John B. DeFrancesco, co-founder of DeFrancesco-Goodfriend Associates, Chicago, which is now a part of L. C. Williams & Associates, believes business telephone etiquette is an important and often overlooked marketing public relations tool. He asks: “Are your employees guilty of ignoring courteous telephone procedure? If so, you could be losing valuable business. Most executives know the importance of making a good first impression. Poor telephone manners can result in prospects or disgruntled customers going somewhere else when they are treated rudely on the phone.”
In a poll conducted by his firm several years ago, 40 percent of business executives are either “usually dissatisfied” or “sometimes dissatisfied” with the way their calls are handled by a receptionist or secretary. Less than half were “usually satisfied” and only 16 percent “sometimes satisfied.” DeFrancesco cites the following as a short list of major offenses cited by survey participants:
- *Placed on hold too long” is by far the most exasperating phone discourtesy, noted by 76 percent.
- Unreturned phone calls, 59 percent.
- Screening of calls, 36 percent.
- General lack of courtesy, 22 percent.
- Asking ‘who is calling,’ 22 percent.
- Background music while on hold, 18 percent.”
According to Advantage Media, Inc. of Chatsworth, California, telephone courtesy does make a difference. “When callers are treated courteously, they normally respond by treating you more pleasantly and with greater respect,” says Advantage Media. “Courtesy even helps irate or angry callers become more reasonable. … Telephone courtesy not only smoothes your relationship with callers, it also helps you become the best you can be as a professional member of your organization’s team.”
Good telephone etiquette can be taken right to the bottom line. Dr. Robert Walker, vice president of development for Texas A&M University, will not allow any of his calls to be screened and he promptly returns all calls. He also is a good listener and was well-rewarded one day by a woman asking a number of questions during a 30-minute conversation. At the end, the woman asked him to call her attorney to make arrangements for a gift of $15 million she wanted to give the university. Her first choice was another university. However, she could never get past the gate guardians to speak with anyone in authority. Even though she had no direct contacts or past experience with the university, after hanging up from her first choice, she made a blind call to the Texas A&M development office. One university’s lack of respect for callers led to a generous gift for one who did understand the benefits of telephone etiquette.
Here are tips for good telephone etiquette:
- Return all phone calls promptly.
- For whatever reason, if a call cannot be returned, have an associate respond.
- For voice mail, your greeting should include your name, the day and whether or not you are in town that day. If you plan to be out of town, let the caller know when you will return. Voice messages should be changed daily and at a minimum, once a week.
- Never have another person place a call for you.
- Be sure all employees understand the organization=s policy.
- Don’t screen any phone calls. The only possible exception might the most senior executive. Employees who work for tax-payer-supported organizations should take all calls without question.
- Always be courteous and say “please” and “thank you.”
- If you’re calling someone, give the secretary or receptionist your name. If you’re not known to the individual you’re calling, also give your title and the name of your organization.
- Identify yourself by name when you answer the phone. In large organizations it’s also a good idea to identify your department.
- If it is late in the day and calls can’t be returned because you are in a meeting, have an associate or secretary return the call and let the caller know when you will be able to return the call. If the call is important, give the caller your home number or ask the caller for his/her home number.
- It is important to let the caller know when you can return a call. An extended meeting may prevent a call from being returned one day, but let the caller know if you will be in meetings the next day or even going out of town.
- News media representatives work on tight deadlines. All news media calls should be returned promptly or immediately referred to the public relations office for response.
- Keep a log of all incoming and outgoing phone calls with day/date and time. Then you know exactly when someone called your or when you called someone else.
- Take accurate and complete messages with the name of the callers, company, time, date, and message received, action to be taken, and the name of the person taking the message.
- If you are not certain how a name is spelled, politely ask the caller to spell it for you.
Note: Rene A. Henry is vice president-public relations for Innovative Communication Corporation, a privately owned telecom and media company with operations throughout the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Belize, France, Sint Maarten, Saint-Martin, Guadeloupe and Martinique. He also is the author of six books including “You’d Better Have A Hose If You Want To Put Out the Fire – the complete guide to crisis and risk communications,” “Marketing Public Relations – the hows that make it work!” and “Offsides! – Fred Wyant’s provocative look inside the National Football League.”