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Professional telephone skills for the helpdesk

Professional telephone skills for the helpdesk

Ring...ring... "Hello help desk...have you tried turning it off and on again?!" Sound familiar? The help desk is a place where the relentless ringing of the phone can slowly drive a perfectly sane, patient and skilled help desk operator into a frazzled shell of their former self. In a world where the ubiquitous telephone plays such an important role in the customer service that an organization provides, it's worthwhile to review a few of the basics when it comes to using the phone, especially from the perspective of the help desk analyst. Improving telephone skills has many advantages, some of which are:

  • Effective telephone use presents a more professional image of the organisation
  • Calls become more effective and directed
  • Calls will be shorter due to improved service and skill
  • Stress is reduced through correct technique and skills
  • Satisfaction levels will increase for both parties

Callers have expectations

It is important to realise that the people who use the help desk service have expectations. Some common expectations that people have when phoning a service are:

  • They want service, they are calling for a reason
  • Prompt answer - Not having the phone ring on and on
  • Expect a friendly attitude, eagerness, courteous manner and a confident, professional disposition
  • Expectation of knowledgeable service
  • Don't want to be given the runaround - Endless transfers, put on hold etc
  • Expect to be valued and given due consideration and respect

Taking the Call Answering the phone:

  • Answer on second ring
  • First impressions are critical
  • Quality Voice Tone - Speak clearly and slowly. Do not mumble, use modulation
  • Identification of Organisation / Section
  • Offer of help - eg. "How can I help you?"

Getting a Callers Name:

  • Write it down immediately
  • Pronounce the name correctly - Repeat it back to the caller to confirm if necessary
  • Get the correct spelling
  • Use the rule of 3. ie Use the name once at the beginning, the middle and end of the call

Many people say their name quickly and often times it is hard to get it correctly down on paper, particularly if the name is long or unusual. Do not be intimidated by the speed or sound of the name. Inform the caller that you did not get their name and ask them to repeat it. Ask them to slow down or spell it if necessary.

Regaining Control / Getting people to come to the point:

  • Use the caller's name
  • Excuse yourself eg. "Excuse me for interrupting" or "I need to interrupt you"
  • Lead with a question or offer a solution eg. "What I need to know is...", "Have you tried...".
  • Adopt a closed questioning style. (See section of Open/Closed Questions)
  • Be firm but polite, always "being in the driver's seat, not riding as passenger"
  • Avoid hesitation; think about what you want to say.

Screening calls:

  • Don't say "Who is this?", "What is your name?" etc. use "Who may I say is calling?"
  • Put on hold to check whether the person is in.
  • Do not give whereabouts / condition of person. eg. At home, on leave, in a meeting, on a break etc. Use "S/he is not available at present"
  • Offer an alternative should the person they are seeking is not available. eg. "My name is ...., I work with ...., can I be of assistance / take a message"

Putting Call on Hold:

  • Explain why you need to put them on hold eg. "I need to find out about that..." or "I will just check for you"
  • Don't say "Hold on" or "Hang on", use "Please Hold" or "Please wait"
  • Check back every 30-40 seconds is possible, providing an option to continue holding
  • Thank the person for holding, for their patience or waiting.
  • Do not apologise for the delay; this is less professional than a thank you. "Thank you for holding."

When not directly talking to the caller in the event of finding out information or confirming details etc, put the caller on hold while you are doing this. Covering the mouthpiece and talking to others or yelling across the room does not present a professional image. By putting the caller on hold and then finding out information and returning to the call, the caller is unaware of the internal processes of meeting their request. They do not get to hear of any information that they should not hear, nor are they compromised through hearing statements that are made relating to them. Remember, people generally do not mind being put on hold if they believe that their request for service is being looked into. Oh, and make sure that you have decent hold music, this always helps.

Transferring a Call:

  • Transfer only if necessary - Avoid run-around
  • Make sure transfer goes to correct person / section
  • Give direct phone number for future reference if appropriate
  • Pre-announce the call. Give name and details before transferring
  • Explain to person receiving transfer why you are transferring it to them

Multiple Calls:

  • Remain calm
  • Place first caller on hold
  • Greet second caller and place on hold. Make sure that this process is smoothly executed. eg. "Hello help desk, Please hold"
  • Promptly return to first caller. Thank them for waiting.
  • Don't rush any calls unnecessarily in order to return to a call on hold
  • Keep the calls in order. First to be put on hold receives first attention etc.

Taking Messages:

  • Get complete information
  • First and Last name
  • Who is it for
  • Name of organisation
  • Complete phone number, including area codes if necessary
  • Message
  • Urgency
  • When is appropriate callback time
  • Consider time zone differences
  • Date of call
  • Time of call
  • Name of person who took the call.
  • Write legibly
  • Repeat to the caller the key points as outlined above.

Persistent Callers:

  • Be proactive - call them instead.
  • Keep the caller informed as to the status of their job, enquiry etc
  • Saves time in the long run and projects a professional image.
  • Puts the caller at ease knowing that they have not been forgotten.

Concluding the call:

  • Use a transitional phrase. eg. "Thanks for your call" or "Before I go..."
  • Summarise points and restate any promises etc that were made.eg "Your request for ... will be looked at shortly...", "I will fax that to you straight away."
  • Allow them to hang up first

Solution vs Problem Orientation

When dealing with people over the phone, particularly in a help desk environment, it is vital to have a solution oriented approach rather than a problem oriented one. Solution oriented means to focus on ways of helping the caller, offering suggestions, giving advice; providing practical solutions to their problems. To be problem oriented is to concentrate on the actual problem and offer little or no solution. A problem oriented focus typically places the emphasis on the cause of the problem, the effects of the problem, the regularity and the severity. Although such analysis is required in order to reach an effective solution, the user should not have to be aware of such factors. Users do not need to know the technical ins and outs of equipment in order to use it. They have a problem and they need a solution, not a lesson in hardware or software engineering. Although it may sometimes be beneficial to provide such knowledge, the majority of users are only concerned in getting back to work. Having considered all these things and the available options, an appropriate solution may then be offered.

Positive Language

The language that we use and the way in which we use it conveys powerful messages to our listener. Voice tones can express a mood, the speed at which we speak conveys urgency, and other factors such as volume, modulation, vocabulary and expression can all add or detract from effective communication. In order to provide an effective help desk service, the help desk operator must be aware of the important role of correct communication skills and be able to apply them in dealing with the users. One of the most important things to remember is to use non threatening, non victimising, neutral language. One of the traps of a help desk position is to cast the user into a victimised role, that is, to see the person as the problem, rather than the technology around them. Once a person has been cast in such a way, the very language we use can be even more incriminating.

Weak Words and Expressions to Avoid

"You should have...", or "Why didn't you..."

Such expressions are obvious examples of victimising language. Statements such as these serve only to distract from the real issue at hand and focus on the user as the source of the problem. This type of response invokes a power relationship between the two parties and can create tension which largely stems from an unbalanced sense of value, resulting in condescending attitudes. Keep in mind too that what has happened in the past cannot be changed and a reference to a past mistake in this fashion does not help the user now. Such pointless and condescending attitudes can inflame a situation and it certainly reduces the efficiency and charter of any help desk environment.

"I will try to get that to you."

The word to look out for here is "try". Try is a weak word as it carries with it the feeling that the desired outcome is not a certainty and it may also infer a lack of competency and professionalism. Be positive and prepared to commit. Saying ,"I will get that done for you." is far superior. Make sure however, that your assurance is followed through and you have the resources for it to be successful. Think before you make such a statement and if you do not have the capacity to complete your task, make the necessary arrangements so that it will be done. If unforeseen circumstances should arise that delay results, inform the client as soon as information is available.

"As Soon As Possible."

ASAP is an overused term is many of today's time management transactions. It creates problems due to not being specific as it is a relative term and an open ended time frame. Rather than using ASAP, be specific. Use dates and times. "It will be ready by 3 o'clock Friday" conveys a much stronger commitment, builds confidence and satisfaction. It can also highlight potential conflicts in time requirements. If a time is unsuitable then alternate arrangements can be settled immediately. If it is not appropriate or possible to provide a solid time frame, let the caller know and tell them that you will keep them up to date with time estimates. Be sure to follow up on your word.

"That's Impossible."

Rather than focusing what is not possible, structure your language and thoughts to express what is possible. Offer suggestions, give options and focus on what can be done. In the event of a persistent or demanding caller, it may be a good tactic to state clearly that something is impossible in order to get the point across, however an alternate solution or suggestion should always follow.

"I am only a clerk.", or "I am just an operator, that is not my area."

Such statements are self defeating, victimising and demeaning. Using the words "only" or "just" in reference to yourself should be avoided as they denote a deflated value of self worth. Rather than portraying yourself with such language, state your position within the organisation in a positive statement, avoiding such language and ask how you may be of service. If you are unable to help, transfer the person to someone who can.

"Will you call back" or "Can you call back later"

The above statements are inappropriate for any service provider as they effectively turn away business by putting the onus on the caller to return their call. Remember to be solution oriented and proactive. Provide an alternative should the person they are trying to contact not be available. Offer to take a message, ask if you are able to help, or transfer them to someone who can. This presents a more professional attitude and will actually help to reduce the number of incoming calls.

Open and Closed Questions

Effective communication and resolution within the help desk environment is often promoted through the use of correct questioning. By asking appropriate and carefully constructed questions, it is possible to determine the needs of the caller in a minimum of time and complication. Questions can often be grouped into two different types, these being Open and Closed questions. Open type questions generally begin with words like "What" or "Why" and call for what may be lengthy or involved answers. Open questions encourage the person to talk. Closed questions on the other hand often begin with words like "Have", "Did" or "Do" and are more specific in their nature. They demand direct answers and replies are usually brief. Closed questions are useful when trying to find out information as they encourage the other person to give concise and specific answers. They are of particular value when dealing with a "talkative" caller or someone who is unsure of what they are talking about. Some examples of Open and Closed questions are set out as below:

Open

  • "What is on your screen at the moment?"
  • "What were you doing before the error occurred?"
  • "How did you check the connections?"

Closed

  • "Do you have Excel on your screen at the moment?"
  • "Did you specify which printer you want to use?"
  • "Have you checked the wall socket?"

Both open and closed question have their purpose and one should never be used exclusively over the other. By reaching a suitable balance, the nature of the help desk call can be turned from one that is caller directed to one that is controlled in a helpful and effective manner by the help desk operator.

Conclusion

Effective telephone skills are an asset to an organization, and even though the phone has been standard office equipment for years, the etiquette and skills underpinning the use of the phone are often overlooked. The help desk is a business environment where such skills are most needed. help desk analysts have a tough job. They provide a service to people who are anxious, stressed out and need help. By implementing the practical ideas outlined above, both parties can benefit.


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