Is speaking on the phone a dying art?

By Fiona Scott on 15 June, 2022

While the use of smartphones is growing across the world with an estimated 7.33 billion people expected to have them by 2025, actually making a phone call is something which many believe is becoming less common.

However a phone is still one of the most used tools in modern business with over 25 million business calls being made every day in the UK and, according to the Harvard Business Review, voice communication is now more important than ever.

However the art of talking on the telephone appears to be dying, with many people under the age of 30 struggling with ‘how’ to strike up a conversation over the phone.

Claire Brewerton is an expert on the etiquette of talking on the telephone and runs Wiltshire-based Virtual Business Centre

She said, “At the Virtual Business Centre we receive and make calls for clients at a rate of around 3000 calls a week. Our business is still growing after 22 years and when we recruit or when we talk to younger members of staff within businesses it becomes clear they often struggle with the ‘how’ of making or answering a phone call. 

“Conversation over the phone which I took for granted as I was growing up, has now changed and these are skills which do need to be considered in the working world.”

Here are a few of Claire’s tips for telephone conversations, which are often, in the world of business, with complete strangers. 

“When we deal with customers over the telephone, it is important to remember that it is a substitute for face-to-face conversations, therefore we cannot see facial expressions, manners, reactions, we cannot see what the other person is doing, we cannot lip-read what the other person is saying and we cannot use illustrations to help them understand,” Claire said. 

How to make effective telephone calls

  • If you are right-handed, put your phone on the LEFT SIDE of the desk –this enables you to hold the phone and take notes at the same time (and vice versa if you are left handed)
  • Open a conversation with a stranger in a positive manner such as ‘I wonder if you can help….’ to set the ‘helpful’ tone of the conversation. 
  • If you cannot speak to the person you hoped for or expected, ask if someone else can help you, rather than leaving a message – you may be taken care of quicker by another person.
  • If you have to leave a message say exactly what you need, how to contact you, and the best time to reach you. Be specific. Avoid vague phrases like ‘call me as soon as possible’.
  • If you are leaving a message with a human being, ask that person to REPEAT your message back to you to make sure they got it right. Don’t do this as a demand. “Would you mind reading that back to me?” – will often be met with a positive response. 

How to return a missed phone call

  • Before you even pick up the phone, ensure your receptionist, PA, colleagues or staff are briefed on when you will return a call. Don’t leave people hanging; this enables you to set callers’ expectations. It might be ‘he/she will call you back tomorrow between 10am and 11am’ and then ensure it’s in your diary.
  • Respect other people’s time – gather all the information you need to take care of a request BEFORE you return a phone call.
  • Beware the ‘throwaway’ statement as these can create a poor customer perception – such as “I’m sorry I didn’t call you back. My boss had us in another meeting that lasted all morning” or I’m sorry it took so long. Now what do you want?”
  • Start the conversation positively with ‘thank you for your call yesterday/two days ago/this morning, how can I help?….” 

How to answer the phone effectively

  • Smile before you pick up the telephone – it may help to have a mirror on your desk, this way you will be able to see how you ‘sound’ on the telephone. It makes your voice positive from the start. 
  • Use the four answering courtesies of greeting the caller, stating your organisation or department, introduce yourself and offer to help. 
  • Show enthusiasm as it helps make the caller feel welcome.
  • Use friendly phrases as part of your greeting such as ‘may I help you further?’
  • Close the conversation positively – such as thanking the caller, thanking them for their business (if relevant), provide assurance that any promises will be fulfilled.
  • Let the caller hang up first as this gives the caller a final chance to add something.

How to respond to a complaining customer

  • Listen with understanding – identify with the customer and acknowledge the complaint. This defuses anger and demonstrates your concern. 
  • Validate their concern with something like – ‘I am sorry you have been inconvenienced, please tell me what happened so that I can help you.’
  • Take action – deal with the complaint in a timely manner, dealing positively with a complaint can turn it into a positive experience. 

Claire said, “A customer’s first impression is all important in gaining co-operation.

“If there’s a problem, do not blame others or make excuses. Instead, take the responsibility and initiative to do whatever you can to solve the problem as quickly as possible.

“If you are not answering your phone, your messages are going to voice mail and you never return calls, it’s inevitable that you are losing business, creating a poor impression of your business and showing up fundamental inefficiency and poor customer service.”

Pictured above: Claire Brewerton, Virtual Business Centre