Sunday, July 3, 2011

Hello, are you listening?

Let's Communic8
By Alex Cummins

Apart from basic etiquette, one must make it a point to communicate clearly when speaking on the phone.

CAN you hold for a while Mr Alex?” the call agent asked before hanging up and leaving me slamming my phone down. Sounds familiar?

Everybody has encountered this kind of scenario on the telephone; whether it is dealing with telephone banking, trying to talk to someone from IT support or simply trying to book an airplane ticket.

When so much of our daily lives are spent on the telephone these days, being an effective communicator on the telephone is vital. So whether you work in finance or IT solutions, here are a few tips to help improve your telephone skills.

Address correctly

Remember to address the person you are speaking to correctly. Be aware that for most European countries we address the customer or client with his or her title plus the family name. So, instead of being Mr Alex, the correct way to address me would be to say the family name as in this case Mr Cummins.

What if I were a woman? Would I be Miss Cummins or Mrs Cummins? The answer would of course depend on my marital status, but what if you did not know? The answer would be to address me as Ms Cummins (pronounced as “muz”’).

Addressing someone as Mrs when they are unmarried can cause great offense as I found out for myself when working for a company, a long time ago.

If you are unsure of how to address someone in a service role, using Sir or Madam can be a way to get round the problem.

Most of the time we use the telephone to exchange information. Whether it is to “‘meet me at KLCC at 8 pm” or “please can you give me your full telephone number and address”, there seems to be endless room for error.

Problems can be created by the sender, listener or the environment. These can range from anything like a noisy office (environmental) to mispronunciation (sender/ listener).

The effect of getting an information exchange wrong can result in missing an appointment or losing a client. How can we make sure that we take down information correctly?

·Ask for repetition. Never be shy to ask for repetition on the telephone: “Could you repeat that please?” Sometimes you may feel shy to ask for repetition and are afraid that you may annoy the person on the other end of the line.

However, you will save yourself considerable heartache in the future if you can get the details right first time. Remember that if you ask for repetition, then repetition is what you will get!

This may not be appropriate if you want the person to spell something for you. Also, try to avoid saying “repeat again” and “repeat back” as these are redundant prepositions.

·Ask for spelling. “Could you spell that for me?” alleviates the problem of trying to guess a confusing spelling.

·If you want to double check that you have taken down details correctly, ask the other person if you can read back what they have just said: “Can I read that back to you?” When spelling a word, use a standard system (like Alfa , Bravo, Charlie, etc) or use a system that is familiar to the listener (K for Kuantan might not be suitable for non-Malaysians).

Listen actively

Don’t zone off and start playing with your favourite iPhone application while you are on the phone.

Make sure that you are actively listening to the other person. Use verbal nods to encourage the speaker, “uh-huh”, “right” and “yes”.

Ensure that you have understood what the person is saying by summarising: “OK, so you want an aisle seat on the outward flight”. Ask for clarification if you are not clear: “What do you mean by the SMTP server?”

And, you can even paraphrase what a speaker has said to demonstrate that you have really listened to them: “So you are saying that I need to login my bank details before the security number”.

Never assume or presume on the phone, especially if you don’t know the caller. What might start off like a routine call may in fact be something entirely different.


Lastly, don’t forget some basic phone etiquette. Bid farewell to the person who has called you or whom you called. Even if you had called the wrong number, it doesn’t hurt to apologise and say “bye”.

Also, ask before you put someone on hold: “Would you mind if I put you on hold for a moment Sir?”

Try not to make the person hold “for a while”. You might think that the caller doesn’t mind listening to the recorded music, but listen to any song 20 times on a muffled line and you might just lose your rag!

The phone needn’t be an enemy at work. Treat people with respect and remember: just because you cannot see someone, doesn’t mean they won’t hear you slouching in your chair grumpily.

Hang on — got to dash — the phone is ringing!

Alex Cummins is a trainer with the Professional Development Unit of the British Council in Kuala Lumpur.

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