The Complete Guide to Business Phone Etiquette

Learn everything you need to know about business phone etiquette to deliver outstanding customer service with unique advice from the business productivity experts.

How important is your first interaction with a customer?

Once upon a time, the saying used to go that a customer’s first interaction with a business was everything. It was how they remembered that business forever. No matter how good the service after was.

It’s not quite that simple anymore.

The reality for today’s customer-centric world is that every single customer interaction represents your business. Delivering anything less than service excellence every time will cost you business.

Poor customer service won’t just cost you potential leads and sales, but it’ll also cost you in regard to your business productivity and brand authority.

All of this is to say, your business phone etiquette matters — a lot.

That’s precisely why we’ve put together our complete guide to walk you through everything you need to know.

Business Phone Etiquette: A Definition

In the Cambridge dictionary, etiquette is defined as:

“The set of rules or customs that control accepted behaviour in particular social groups or social situations”.

Because of this understanding, so many people assume business phone etiquette is a simple set of rules and manners. While that’s definitely part of it, it doesn’t quite show the whole picture.

Business phone etiquette should be thought of as an all-encompassing term for how your business interacts with customers over the phone. That’s the definition we’ll be using.

This definition includes all aspects of phone calls. From call handling to call answering to following up, all these interactions are part of how you do business. They’re what shape your customer’s experience. As such, they all come with best practices to ensure the best customer experience every time.

Broadly speaking, business phone etiquette can be split into five different aspects to consider:

  • Call answering
  • Call ownership
  • Call handling
  • Call management
  • Call closing

We’ll be looking at all of them in further depth throughout this guide. But first let’s understand why business phone etiquette is so important to your business.

Why Is Business Phone Etiquette So Important?

We said this in the introduction, but we’ll say it again.

Poor business phone etiquette can cost you.

A poor experience costs your company money. A customer who has a poor experience buying from you will go to a competitor who values their time.

But it doesn’t just cost you that one purchase.

Chances are, that customer won’t come back to you in their lifetime. A study showed that after just one negative experience, a whopping 51% of customers will never do business with a company again.

It will also cost you valuable word-of-mouth-marketing. Research suggests the average customer tells a further 15 people about a poor service experience. So you’re losing those customers too.

When all is said and done, bad customer service costs UK businesses around £37 billion a year.

No small sum, is it? Yet still, many businesses seem to accept it as a normal cost of doing business. Instead of resolving internal issues revolving around customer service, they’ll plough funds into marketing campaigns to bring in new customers.

This approach comes with its own price — productivity.

The Cost of Productivity

Let’s look at the average phone handler’s 8-hour working day and figure out how they spend their time.

Out of an 8 hour day, in our experience half of calls are taken up by service calls in a poor performing company and perhaps only 15% in a better one.

By service calls, we mean queries, hidden complaints and other calls which are just taking up time. Whatever they are, if the initial service or interaction with your business had been more productive, the customer wouldn’t be calling.

This can include anything from full-blown complaints to something as simple as checking the time of an appointment. Regardless of the severity of call, both highlight issues with the customer experience and take up our agent’s time.

Before you know it, our agent has lost half their day to service calls.

Then half a week.

Then half a month.

Then half a year.

All for calls that didn’t need to happen had the customer experience been optimised in the first place. This time could have been spent on helping the business grow through following up leads or sales.

You might think your business doesn’t spend 50% of their phone time handling service calls, but you may be surprised. From the many different businesses and industries we’ve helped become more productive, 50% service calls is actually quite a conservative estimate.

The Benefits of Good Business Phone Etiquette

It’s not all doom and gloom.

If we change perspective, delivering good customer service comes with amazing results for businesses.

Customers are happy to spend up to 17% more to do business with a company that delivers excellent customer service; and 7 out of 10 customers say they’ve done exactly that.

These happy customers are good news for business because it’s up to five times more expensive to acquire a new customer than it is to keep an existing one. Because of this, increasing customer retention rates by even 5% can increase profits by up to 25%.

All this research backs up what businesses profess to know, but so often ignore.

To compete in today’s business world, companies must be customer-centric.

Long gone are the days where businesses could compete on price or quality alone. The 21st century customer expects an excellent customer experience.

Anything less will cost your business.

With the risks and benefits regarding customer service laid out, it’s clear to see how important business phone etiquette is.

It’s one of the defining ways you interact with your customers. But as we said above, it’s not just how you answer a phone that matters.

Your business phone etiquette includes things like how well your company manages and handles calls, as well as how well you follow them up.

Let’s look at all these different aspects in more depth.

Call Answering

Call answering is a hugely broad topic in itself. It’s one of the defining features of your customer service.

Getting it right is the difference between a happy customer and an unhappy one.

This isn’t as simple as reading a script. Your call answering should be guided by the principles of customer service. This means both understanding and listening to your customers, but also knowing the right actions to take.

Understanding Your Customers

All this starts with understanding your customer in the first place. You can’t help them if you have no idea what their motivations, needs or wants are.

You can better understand your customers through customer empathy.

A nebulous concept, ever-changing depending on who you ask. But at it’s basic level, it’s the idea of understanding the needs and feelings of your customers. You can then use this insight to inform and improve your customer experience.

Genuinely empathising with your customers can help improve business phone etiquette in a huge variety of ways. It could be as simple as hiring more employees to reduce wait times. It could be through improving your UX experience to provide information frequently requested on calls. It could be through adding an automated follow-up email to reiterate information shared. The possibilities are boundless.

All the above examples would fall under the umbrella of proactive customer service.

By this we mean, anticipating the needs of your customers and addressing them.

You might be wondering how all these relate to call answering. But the reality is if these foundations aren’t laid beforehand, it will affect the standard of customer service agents can deliver when they answer the phone.

Listening To Customers

Once these foundations are in place, you can move onto addressing the skills more directly related to phone call answering.

While manners are obviously a necessity, many companies fall short in assuming this is the only skill its employees should focus on. It’s not the case.

There are few things more frustrating than feeling like you’ve not been heard.

Chances are you’ve experienced at least one of these interactions in your lifetime. You’ve called up a company and explained the problem. But because they’re reading from a script, you’re not getting the answers you need. You’re frustrated, the agent is frustrated and everyone has a bad experience.

Simply listening could have fixed the problem.

This is why companies and agents who value active listening in customer service do better.

Active listening helps build trust with your customers by showing them they’re not just any other customer. The agent wants to hear and help them as a unique individual.

There are many techniques for active listening on phone calls, but the most important are:

  • Pay attention
  • Demonstrate your understanding
  • Respond appropriately

Sometimes this means going off script, but your customers will love you for it in the long run.

Listening goes hand-in-hand with questioning.

Any call agent can tell you that a high proportion of the phone calls they get are queries. It’s so easy to assume that because the agent has answered the given query the caller had, that you can write that off as a good customer service experience. But it’s not the case.

The reality is, your company and your employees are the experts of your service or product. Your customer isn’t.

Sometimes, this means customers won’t have the knowledge to know the questions they need to ask in the first place.

You can deliver better customer service by not only actively listening, but by knowing the right questions to ask customers to get to the root of issues and deliver the best possible outcomes.

This is why call agents should be trained in customer service questioning techniques. This goes beyond the simple, “how can I help you today?” to instead knowing what types of questions to ask to get the most valuable information out of customers.

How To Deal With Upset Customers

Of course, occasionally it seems bad customer experiences are unavoidable.

For phone agents, this is often due to some other interaction with your business and the first they’re hearing of it. In these instances, they should be confident, as well as trained, in how to handle upset customers.

Dealing with upset customers involves many of the same guiding principles of delivering outstanding customer service in the first place.

Listen, understand and proactively try to resolve the issue to the best of your ability, just as you would for any other customer.

The companies who set themselves apart from the competition are those who go beyond the bare minimum with service recovery.

So many companies deal with complaints poorly because they follow a set process and refuse to go outside this process for each unique problem.

You’ve likely seen the copy and paste, hollow apologies for poor TrustPilot reviews. These are a great example of how not to resolve a complaint.

Service recovery focuses on recognising customer expectations and meeting them.

Of course, not all expectations are reasonable. But being able to discuss, negotiate and come to a compromise is a better alternative to outright refusing.

If companies are able to achieve this with a customer, they can recover their experience with them. The customer may not purchase from the company again, but they are likely to note that the experience was resolved when telling others about it. This can go a long way to restoring trust and authority in your brand.

Still, for the proactive customer-centric business, resolving the complaint isn’t the end of the process. Complaints should be analysed and examined to figure out root causes and how they could be avoided in the future. This ties into a larger process of continual improvement across the business, ensuring the customer experience is always evolving.

Call Ownership

Call answering is intrinsically linked with call ownership.

Many companies fail to address this vital element in their business phone etiquette and their customer service suffers because of it.

If you’re not familiar with the concept, we’ll use an example we’re sure you’ll be familiar with.

A customer has called up with a query and Agent A answers the phone. Agent A isn’t sure, but another department will know. They tell the customer they will email them the information once they have it. After the call, Agent A emails the other department.

The department takes a while to pick up the email. Customers aren’t their priority after all. But they do eventually email it back to Agent A.

They don’t know Agent A is on holiday by the time it’s gone back to them. Agent B, who is covering, sees the email. They don’t know what it’s in regard to, so they ignore it.

The customer calls back a week later and Agent C answers the phone. What was once a query is now a complaint. Agent C tells them they’ll look into it. But Agent A is still away and their manager is unavailable that day. They drop their manager an email and assume it will get resolved at some point.

By this point, the customer is exasperated. They’ve left a bad review on Google and TrustPilot.

They’re further antagonised by the auto-response they receive on their reviews with an empty apology, asking them for contact details the company already has on record, so they can look into it further.

Now ask yourself, who’s fault was the complaint?

No one’s really. It’s a culture problem.

Specifically, a culture lacking in ownership. If any of the employees involved had taken ownership over the query, it could have been resolved. Agent A could have met with the department. Agent B could have called the customer to get more information. Agent C could have made resolving it a priority.

Without call ownership, issues multiply and bad customer service reigns supreme.

Whereas in a company where employees are encouraged to take ownership in customer service, your customers reap the rewards. Problems are resolved faster, customers are happier and your business productivity and profitability improves.

Much of call ownership comes down to empowering your employees and increasing their well-being.

An unmotivated, burned out employee who feels like the company doesn’t care about them is unlikely to want to take ownership. A happy employee who is shown they are valued and appreciated within a business is far more likely to take ownership.

With that foundation established, call ownership comes down to communication through powerful conversations. It doesn’t mean simply taking the blame for the company, but expressing and showing that you personally are concerned with a customer’s issue and you have a genuine desire to resolve it.

Call Handling

Business phone etiquette also extends to the way you handle calls as impacts the overall customer experience you deliver.

Let’s say you call up a company with an issue.

You’re not annoyed when you originally call them. But then you’re on hold for half an hour before you even speak to a human.

When you finally do speak to a human, they tell you you’ve gone through to the wrong department and they’ll transfer you. You wait on hold, again, before you eventually get through just to be cut off.

Obviously, this is an extreme example of bad call handling. But it happens a surprising amount, even in large, well-established companies. Perhaps even more so for these companies.

This is often because companies simply outsource this aspect of their business without giving it much analysis or thought. But for smaller and medium-sized companies, this process is dealt with internally and should be given due attention and consideration.

There are clear call handling skills that can be taught to employees. These include things like manners and tone, but also summarising the call, as well as internal knowledge of where to direct calls to.

Companies who want to follow the best phone etiquette should therefore be analysing call handling regularly to see where it can be improved and where the weaknesses lie.

They can use this information to develop call handling best practices which can be shared with employees to ensure the best possible customer experience every time.

Call Management

Call management looks at the bigger picture of business phone etiquette. It’s an important - and often overlooked - aspect of your process.

Businesses should be reviewing their call management processes continually.

Without knowing the unique ins-and-outs of your business, it’s difficult to say exactly what this would look like in your business.

It could mean assessing how inbound and outbound calls are managed and whether it could be done better. It could be reviewing your current call management software to see whether it needs to upgrade to more modern technology. It could be researching new call management features which could improve your customer service.

There is no one size fits all rule to call management, but there are many best practices which may help your business.

Call Closing

Last, but by no means least, the close.

Many sales people will tell you the close is the most important aspect of the call.

There are literally hundreds of call closing techniques to pick from. From the tried-and-tested to more modern techniques.

These vary depending on the type of calls you’re dealing with; whether it’s a sale, a lead or a service call. But having set processes in place for the different types of calls will ensure you’re not missing out on opportunities.

This is why so many businesses have scripts with a variety of customer service closing statements for their agents to pick from to deliver better customer service.

From the most famous, “is there anything else I can help you with?” to summarising the call, these scripts have their place. This said, they do need regular evaluation.

Companies should ask themselves how well ending scripts fit with their ethos and whether there are better options available. Just because something is working okay doesn’t mean it couldn’t work better.

It’s also worth highlighting that the nature of the 21st century customer means the close is no longer really the close.

Customers interact with brands across many different channels and platforms, creating a multi-channel experience. Because of this, the customer service follow up has never been more important.

Whether this is sending a thank you email, asking for a review or offering an incentive to purchase again, it’s so important that your company doesn’t miss this vital step of the process.

Automated marketing can help you manage these aspects to ensure you don’t miss key follow ups. This can extend the lifetime value of your customer and ensure your customer service is bar none.

Mastering Business Phone Etiquette & Customer Service

So there you have it, the ultimate guide to business phone etiquette.

However, knowledge is just half the battle. You need to implement all these changes. Not only that, but you need to implement them in a way that is both manageable and sustainable.

It’s no easy feat.

That’s where we come in. Awardaroo can help you improve your business phone etiquette with our unique telephone sales and service training course.

Get in touch to find out more

Our telephone sales and service course is bespoke. This means we get to know your business and the unique challenges you’re facing. We then take all of this into consideration when planning your training programme to best help your employees reach their full potential.

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