By Patti Wood, M.A.
We’ve all had this experience. You call a business, a harried voice asks you to hold, and before you have a chance to say, “no!” you’re listening to some prerecorded music while you linger there, trapped “on hold.” Or you call up to ask a simple question such as how late the store stays open and the voice on the other end responds as if you have asked them to push a Mack truck across the country with his big toe. Perhaps the person on the other end of the line uses the right words, but the tone of the voice says, “You are an idiot and I don’t have time for this.”
So how do people feel when they call your call center? Are the nonverbal messages you give out over the phone making a good first impression? Are you energetic, respectful, and professional on the phone? If you are, you can bet that people notice it, appreciate it, and value you and the service you provide.
In the caller’s mind, the nonverbal message is as important as or more important than the words. If the verbal message is different from the nonverbal message, people will rely on the nuances of the voice rather than the words to infer meaning. These nuances are called paralanguage and include accents, pauses, volume, emphases, tone, tempo, and rate. On the telephone, much of the emotional impact and true meaning of the message is interpreted from those nuances and other nonverbal cues such as time and background sounds.
There are certain techniques you can use to improve your effectiveness on the telephone and create a positive impression:
Answer Your Phone Promptly: Time is a powerful nonverbal communicator. When waiting on the phone, there may be little or no stimulation or distractions to make the time pass, affecting callers’ perceptions so wait time seems longer. If someone is calling with a question, a concern, or to purchase something, the longer your phone rings, the less important the call becomes. It also allows time for the caller’s concern to grow or for a purchase to evaporate. Answering quickly stops these feelings from getting out of control and helps callers perceive that you are quick and efficient. Avoid letting the telephone ring more than three or four times. Research shows that each additional ring after three makes the caller an average of 10 percent more likely to hang up and 15 percent more likely to be irritated when you finally do answer.
Use a Warm, Sincere Voice in Your Greeting: Make sure that the first words, such as “good morning” or “good afternoon,” are delivered with warmth and sincerity. The most important aspects we look for in first impressions are qualities that make us feel safe, such as friendliness and genuineness. If you use an automatic greeting, you will give an impression of insincerity and unfriendliness. On the phone, it takes a mere fortieth of a second to form a first impression, so the voice you use is critical. We don’t just form these impressions with strangers; we also form first impressions of the moods of people we already know.
Give the Caller Adjustment Time: Our ears are very sensitive to sound. It takes 10 to 30 seconds to adjust to voices. Make a habit of saying, “Good morning,” or “Good afternoon.” This gives the caller time to adjust to your voice before going on to the most important part of your greeting such as your name or the name or your business. Say it clearly and don’t rush it. If the caller isn’t given this adjustment period, he or she may not retain the information you give. The caller may hear it, but won’t absorb it.
Answer Immediately But Slowly: Don’t rush through your client’s name and greeting. It’s a habit everyone gets into. Remember that a rushed voice creates a perception in the mind of the caller. It can make callers think that their business is not important to you, that you’re busy, stressed, or that you want rush them. Take a deep relaxing breath before you pick up the phone and focus on using normal conversation speed in your delivery.
Be Understandable in Your Communication: Take precautions to ensure that you speak clearly. That means not just slowly, but articulately. You can test how clear your voice is by taping yourself reading a paragraph. Then bite down on a tooth prop like a large marker and read a few paragraphs. The tooth prop makes your lips and tongue work harder. Then take out the tooth prop out and immediately turn back on the recorder and read again. If the voice sounds crisper, with harder t’s, c’, k’s and d’s you need to use the tooth prop regularly to have a clear sounding voice. If you have a significant accent, accent-reduction classes might help your phone voice as well as your career.
Match Voice Tone, Volume, and Rate of Speech: You may have heard about the value of matching or mirroring body language to establish rapport and make someone feel safer and more comfortable. Did you know that matching the voice on the phone has the ability to do that as well? Remember that the caller does not have face-to-face cues to help read you and make him or her feel safe. Matching the nuances of the person’s voice in the first few minutes of the call puts a person at ease.
Avoid Making Background Noise: Have you ever heard someone on the other end of the line clicking on computer keys? Chances are it made you wonder if you had the person’s full attention. In this world of multi-tasking, we may think it’s all right to do more than one thing, but to the person who expects your attention, it can seem rude, unprofessional, and disrespectful.
Don’t Interrupt Your Customer: When you are face to face with another person, you use body language cues such as leaning forward and eye contact to indicate whose turn it is to speak. When these are absent, you need to carefully avoid interruptions as they come across more severely and can appear rude. Wait until it is clear that the person has finished speaking before you respond.
It is crucial to consistently practice these skills to establish and maintain good first impressions. Your tone, energy, and even the speed at which you speak, need to be the same for everyone at all times of the day. It makes no difference how you are feeling that day; your caller needs to feel appreciated and satisfied.
Patti Wood is one of the nation’s top body language experts, with over 20 years of experience researching and teaching nonverbal communication. She is the author of, “Success Signals- Body Language in Business.” Patti helps businesses use body language to improve sales, productivity, and communication. For more information, call 404-371-8228.
[From the April/May 2006 issue of AnswerStat magazine]