In the service business, the customer's first impression should be positive, rewarding and comforting.

Customers call when they are uneasy about what they need to do to fix their equipment, systems or facilities in their home or business. They need assurance that the work can be completed properly and that they won't be overcharged. The initial response - the first impression - they receive from your call taker or customer service representative (CSR) can determine whether they decide to hire your company or go elsewhere. Seconds, not minutes, is all it takes for a positive impression or one that leaves the potential customer convinced they need to search further for a service company. Any discomfort and they are lost as a customer.

Recognizing the true cost of each call to the business, it makes sense to have the right people with the right training handling the calls. It is more than a CSR's lost time spent talking to a caller who does not schedule a service appointment; it's all the advertising and promotion costs that are now wasted because the potential customer is calling some other company for assistance with their problem.

These key personnel should be able to consistently produce business scheduling service appointments. However, it is unfair to expect good results without preparing the CSRs. They should be professionals in answering the telephone and dealing with potential customers. Let's look at some of the problem area and a few tips that managers and owners have control over to assure the best results from CSRs.

Irritants And Risky Practices

Machine telephone answering: Technology has offered some great time saving devices, many related to computer power. One of those devices is answering systems and voice mail. Many companies have been able to eliminate substantial amounts of overhead by reducing the number of live people callers speak to when they call. (Call your local utility company and see if you speak to a live operator.)

Even computer help lines now require a series of telephone button responses before you reach a live person - if you ever do. These are irritants, especially if you have a problem at home - that's when you are looking forward to speaking to someone who can help.

That doesn't mean companies should abandon all computerized answering, but it might be valuable to have live operators on lines that customers call needing what they consider to be “immediate help.” Several companies we have worked with have switched back to live operators and found a higher percentage of happy customers, which translates to more business.

If the caller hears a machine, they may just hang up, so your CSRs don't even get a chance to speak to them and comfortably gather the information needed for the service call. Striking out before going to bat can be expensive in the service and repair business. All the money saved by automating the call process can quickly be lost by hang ups and untold lost business.

The automated system says: “Our efficiency and cost containment is more important than you,” to customers. They want to do business with a company that cares about them.

Antidote: Either have a live person answering, or get the customer in touch with one simply and quickly.

Placing callers on hold: Avoid putting people on hold for more than a brief moment. They hate it and may quickly tire and hang up - another lost call. If CSRs have to juggle calls, they should be trained how to spend a few seconds away and then return to the customer.

When the caller has time to worry about when the CSR will return to the line, they may hang up.

Antidote: Either have a “no hold” rule, or have CSRs adept at returning quickly to the caller so the call is not lost.

Quoting prices: Customers will often ask how much? A fair question. The problem is no one can know the answer until a technician diagnoses the problem - something that is impossible to do over the telephone, let alone by CSRs. What customers really want to know is that they will be treated fairly and not overcharged.

Relying on either the customer's diagnosis or a CSR's estimate is extremely risky. Your company will then be in the insurance business, insuring that your quote was accurate. And, if not, insuring that the customer will not pay more than what you estimated. The odds are not in your favor if you choose to gamble on those uninformed quotes. Attempting to change the amount of the telephone estimate will be met by suspicion from the customer. Expecting them to understand the new price from a professional diagnosis will look like a “bait and switch” or some other unethical practice-even though the technician properly diagnosed the job cost. They were locked in from the telephone estimate and it is unlikely any explanation would be met with approval by the customer.

Antidote: Instead of having CSRs quote prices, offer a diagnostic fee that applies to the price of the job, plus assure them that they will receive a firm price for the work before any work is begun.

Unprofessional reponses: I invite you to have a person with an unrecognizable voice call your company and ask some hard questions. You may be surprised (probably shocked in some cases) at what you hear. When we did just that for training sessions, we heard all sorts of responses from untrained CSRs. Some examples:

  • Suggestions that the caller could fix the problem themselves with a little work;

  • That the caller could purchase an appliance or hot water heater in their neighborhood at the local home warehouse to save money;

  • That no one was available (and wouldn't be for hours) to give them a time they could have a technician arrive at their home;

  • That similar calls of this type cost about so many dollars, this one should be no different

  • That the caller should call back tomorrow to speak to the best person to answer their question. In some cases, the customer was actually referred to the competition.

You need to know what your call takers are saying. The only way to know is to have someone call.

Antidote: Use a script. It will reassure the customer that their problem will be fixed, and be certain that the necessary data to schedule the service call (name, address, problems, etc.) is recorded.

Rambling conversations: It is not unusual for an untrained CSR to engage the potential customer in a conversation, maybe sharing their experiences or some personal information. Two significant problems surface when this occurs: 1) the CSR is wasting valuable time, other callers are waiting to have their call answered; and 2) the caller is not having their problem addressed; no information is being gathered.

The CSRs are not there to make friendly conversation with the callers. They need to get the information and move on. CSRs who speak to a caller with a common problem for 20 minutes cost the business money and deprive other callers with problems from receiving the attention they deserve.

Antidote: Train CSRs to use a proven script and avoid long, rambling calls. Similar to unprofessional calls, scripts significantly improve the communications between CSRs and customers.

Training, Rewards And Team Building

The only way CSRs will learn the best ways to handle calls is through training. It's valuable for them to meet occasionally and share problem areas, guided by managers or owners who identify problems. Have them practice briefly in a simply role play to handle potential problem calls.

Rewarding CSRs for successfully handling calls and scheduling service appointments can be valuable, too. They need to know quality work is both appreciated and rewarded.

Teams tend to work better and more efficiently. Since CSRs work all day with dispatchers, set up joint meetings to allow them to interact professionally. Understanding the other person's link in the chain of customer services assures a smooth flow of information.

Clear lines and quality telephone equipment makes a difference, too. It's worth spending the extra dollars to make sure customers hear your CSRs as professionally as they speak. Crackling phones and dropped calls only cost the business money. Combining professional CSRs and quality phone equipment is a winning combination.

Not having trained CSRs and good equipment is like locking the door of a retail business; no customers can get to you, or you to them. Open the door with a streamlined call-taking department.