05 Jun 2015 17:17 IST

Smile: You're on the telephone

Take a telephone call just as seriously as a face-to-face meeting

While visiting the East Asian manager of a software company in India, I noticed a hand mirror on his otherwise Spartan corporate desk. Seeing me eye it curiously, he offered an explanation: “In my company, everybody is instructed to smile when they answer the phone. A smile carries over the phone. I keep this mirror strategically positioned on my table so I can look at it as I say “hello” and make sure I’m smiling.”

Every time we recount this story at one of our training sessions for Indian professionals, it elicits smiles. “Why do you think his behaviour odd?” I ask participants. The usual answer is: “It is so bizarre/artificial, especially as he cannot see the other person.”

Given that the usual greeting you get at any average Indian company is a lackadaisical “hello, halloo”, or in some cases a curt “yeah” or, worse still, a grunt, I would recommend a mirror to every professional. It is very important to sound businesslike and efficient over the telephone. This is a dominant form of communication in the West. It is also as important to be polite and clear. Telephone etiquette is not something Indian professionals are very conscious about. My frequent advice is to treat every phone call as a face-to-face meeting?

The key to making or having a correct telephone conversation is the word `SMILE'.

S — Slow and Clear

Speak slowly, clearly and smile. This makes your voice sound positive to the person you are speaking to. Slow down your speech by 50 per cent of your normal speed. Tape your voice on a smart phone and see how you sound to yourself. It helped me modulate my voice and to truly slow down. Put the timer on and introduce yourself concisely. Do it today, you will be amazed at your clarity.

M — Maintain your manners

Be helpful and polite to any caller. Even if she/he has dialed the wrong number, listen to his/her request carefully and offer to transfer him/her to the correct person. If you call someone for a long discussion, ask if it is a convenient time or if they would prefer to talk later. This is such an important first question to ask always for a call. Introduce all others on a call; it is good manners. Don’t type away during a call, if you are taking notes on a system, then announce it so that the listener knows to expect these noises. Even if you are in a noisy place or working from home, reveal this to the listener. “Sorry, my daughter is ill and I am working from home. I can focus on the call though”, my AVP in Pune announced last week on a call, and I appreciated it. I remembered to text her next day to ask how her daughter was doing. So her good manners helped build our relationship.

I — Identify yourself

When answering the telephone, internal or external, always state your name. For instance: “Hello, this is Ravi.” This will enable the caller to identify whether s/he has the correct person immediately and eliminate the repetitive `Hellos' and `Who's this?' Mobile phone use has led to us not announcing our name these days, but landlines always require it.

L — Listen

At all times listen carefully to what the caller has to say. Wait until s/he has finished talking before answering. Interrupting is considered very rude in Western countries, but Indians usually find nothing wrong with it. Listen wholeheartedly.

E — How to end

End with “Thank you”. You will find that most Americans end their conversation with “Have a nice day.” It is appropriate to reply, “Thank you, you too,” and this is effectively `goodbye'. Many of us are in situations where we deal with customers over the phone. It requires only basic, common sense skills to tackle even difficult situations. While conducting a Western Etiquette and Communications programme for a top American company's call centre in Chennai, I was double jacking on another phone to listen in and guide while an Indian employee spoke to an irate American caller.

(Caller client - CC; Software professional - SP; Double jacker - DJ)

SP: “Computer company, this is Shivaramakrishnan, call me Siva for short. How may I help you?”

CC: “Siva, what do I have to do to get an American, I don't want to be outsourced to India.”

SP: “I am here to help you sir, please tell me your problem.”

CC: “I have explained my problem to three other Indians before you — I want an American.”

DJ: “Take control of the call, empathize.”

SP: “Sir, I understand your frustration, I have been trained in this software, please tell me your problem. I can certainly help find the solution this time.”

CC: “Well I keep getting error messages when I back up the database.”

SP: “What is the message?”

DJ: “Make it specific.”

SP: “What is the EXACT error message sir?”

CC: “Number 630 unable to reboot.”

SP: “Thank you, please hold one moment.”

DJ: “Tell him why he is holding. Remember the customer doesn't know what you are up to.”

SP: “Please hold one moment while I look up that message on my master list, sir.”

CC: “Ok, thank you.”

SP: “Thank you for holding; it could be an operations system mismatch sir.”

Solutions were found and the customer went away happy. As simple as that!