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August 8, 2011   Practice Management

Telephone Etiquette – How we say “hello” matters

By Peggy Hoyt, J.D.

Peggy Hoyt, JD
The Law Office of Hoyt & Bryan, LLC
Member of WealthCounsel

In our recent quest for a new receptionist, our office has been unusually focused on the service (or lack of it) we provide by phone.  As a result, I wanted to share some thoughts on receptionists and phone etiquette that I hope will be helpful.
How often do you call your office for the purpose of evaluating how your phone is being answered?  I’m in the habit of calling my back line so I don’t have to listen to the whole, “Good morning, The Law Offices of Hoyt & Bryan, this is (insert name), how may I help you?” routine.  As a result, I’m not always paying attention to the first impression my prospective clients, existing clients and referral sources are getting when they call my office.  I’m now rethinking that approach.  It is imperative I hear what callers hear.  

We recently hired a new receptionist.  As she is still in her probationary period, we are watching her phone manners and technique very carefully.  Already we’ve discovered a few things we hadn’t expected.  First, despite her resume stating she has experience with a ten line phone system, answering a law office phone is very different from simply directing a call to a requested individual.  In our office, and I suspect in yours, your receptionist may also be your “unofficial” inside sales person.  They have to know enough about your firm and what you do and how you do it to be able to explain it to a stranger on the phone.  And, they have to be able to do this succinctly in about 30 seconds because the next line is ringing (hopefully) and you don’t want them to put the first caller on hold unnecessarily.  In addition, other team members who may be accepting phone calls as a back-up to the receptionist needs to have the same training and skills as the receptionist. 

If it’s an existing client who is calling, it’s important the Telephone Etiquettereceptionist be familiar with their name and their current client status.  One of the difficulties we’ve experienced is our new receptionist has a problem pronouncing names.  As a result, she has become wary of even trying to pronounce a name and instead addresses the client as Mr. or Mrs. (insert first name).  For some clients, this is fine, for first time callers or other clients, unacceptable.  This particular issue may become a deal killer and require we find a more experienced and confident person if not overcome in short order.  Unfortunately, there was no way to screen for this skill set at the interview stage.  Having knowledge of the client’s status is also important so their call may be directed efficiently to the appropriate team member.  More often than not, however, this skill comes with time and experience as the receptionist learns who the most frequent callers are and the nature of their matter.

I called the law office of a friend today and I have yet to figure out what his receptionist said when she answered the phone.  As the caller, I wondered whether I called the right business.  That is not the first impression I would want to leave with a caller.  Your receptionist should speak clearly, slowly and in a tone and manner that allows them to be easily understood.  This is particularly important for senior clients who may have difficulty hearing and understanding. 

I also had the chance to overhear my new receptionist talking to a client today.  Apparently the client is one of our more difficult varieties and she actually did a pretty good job of handling the call.  A couple of things I noticed, however.  One, she referred to our fees as prices.  Not sure I like the sound of that.  Second, she indicated we would call them back at our earliest convenience. Personally, I think this sounds pretentious and not in the client’s best interest.  I suggested an alternative would be to say we would call them back at our earliest opportunity, giving it a more positive approach.  One thing we learned in law school is words matter. 
We have to choose them carefully or risk sending an unintended message.  We try and script the common conversations our receptionist may have, but helping them select the appropriate words is clearly also important.  Another example would be we teach workshops, not seminars and our workshops are complimentary, not free. 

Here are some telephone etiquette suggestions for receiving and making calls:
  1. Smile before you answer the phone.  The smile will be conveyed in your tone and in your manner.  Use a cheerful, confident and professional voice.
  2. Speak clearly, slowly and in a normal conversational tone.  When a person can only hear you and not see you, what you say and how you say it becomes very important. 
  3. Never eat, drink or chew gum when answering or talking on the phone.  This is not only rude, it sounds terrible. 
  4. Never use slang, poor language or curse.  Avoid the use of the words  “yeah”, “jus (sic) a minute”, “hang on”, etc.  Instead address the individual as Mr. or Mrs. (insert last name), say “yes please” or “no thank you” as appropriate, and “may I place you on hold?”  I shouldn’t have to say more about cursing – never do it, even in jest or if you know the person well. 
  5. All callers should be addressed professionally using Mr. or Mrs. and their last name.  A first time caller should never be addressed by their first name. 
  6. Transcribe messages very carefully.  Ask each and every person to verify the spelling of their name, even if their name is Bob Smith.  You never know when that person will be Baub Smythe.  You don’t have to ask them to spell their name, but confirm the spelling as you are taking the message. Phone numbers should be repeated back to the caller to confirm no numbers have been transposed.  Handwriting should be legible and easy to read.  A complete date and time should be posted on each message in the event it ends up in a file and may be referred to in the future. 
  7. The purpose of the call should be clearly stated so the person returning the call has the context for their return call.  There is nothing more embarrassing or frustrating than grabbing a stack of phone messages to return from the car only to discover you have no idea what the nature of the call is.
  8. Patience and courtesy are virtues.  If a caller is upset for any reason, don’t respond in kind.  Listen carefully, be empathic and get them to an appropriate decision maker who can help them.  You don’t have to solve the problem for them unless you have the authority to do so.    
  9. Calls should never be placed on hold with a “please hold” without even saying hello.  Instead, callers should always grant permission after a polite, “May I place you on hold?”  Then wait for the answer.  If I’ve already waited for the call to be answered, I may respond, “No, you may not place me on hold.”  If treated differently, chances are, I’ll hang up. So will your clients.
  10. Hold times should be monitored and minimized.  No one likes to be put on hold.  Hold music and messages are nice, but make sure they are easy to listen to, clear, and without static.  Many times I’ve listened to nothing but static as the radio station intended to soothe the on hold caller is no longer properly tuned in.
  11. Focus on the caller.  If interrupted, put the interrupter on hold, not the caller.  They had your attention first and deserve to be served.  Notwithstanding, if answering multiple lines, you may have to put a caller on hold if you don’t have a process for back up answering.  In our office, the phone is not permitted to ring more than three times before another team member answers the call.  Calls only go to voicemail during lunch hours, after noon on Friday, nights and weekends.
  12. When making a call, always clearly identify yourself and your company.  Do this first thing – “Hello, this is Peggy Hoyt with the Law Offices of Hoyt & Bryan, is Mr. Smith available?” This is preferable to, “Is Mr. Smith there?”
  13. When leaving a message, state your name clearly, spell your first and last name and say your phone number slowly and twice.  Most people speak so fast on a recorded message they are hard to understand.  Saying your phone number twice gives the recipient the chance to write it down and confirm before the message is over and has to be replayed.  Be sure to say why you are calling so the call can be returned promptly and appropriately. 
  14. Messages should be short and succinct.  No one wants to listen to an endless message when inevitably all that information will need to be repeated when the call is returned. 
I’m certain there are many more suggestions you may have.  I would love to hear them so they can be incorporated into our ever growing telephone procedures manual.   Remember, smile and dial!

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Practice Management


James W. Respess JD, RFC Mon Aug 8, 2011
Peggy this is outstanding. Thanks Jim
Larry Thu Aug 11, 2011
Dear Peggy, how refreshing to read your telephone etiquette blog. Over the years I employed 14 highschool seniors to answer the telephone and do routine office work. My first lessson was always about the people who would call and ask for Larry, Mr. Sutton or the person who determined the "fee" shown on their last invoice. My firm request was, you always respond by saying, "May I tell Mr. Sutton who is calling". This question is pertinant wheather I'm standing in front of the desk or am out for the week. If I was out, the correct answer making sure you had the name correct and matter the call concerned, was "Mr. Sutton will return your call promptly when he returns to the office". Some common sense must be applied to all of this. When I receive a call and your rule 12 is violated. I want to respond with, "wait, wait, don't tell me". Peggy, there are often better ways to do almost everything. I have always been impressed how you and your firm strive to "do it better". Could you give me a complimentary workshop on how to use Linkedin? Free could work for me also. Your admirer and fan, Larry

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