Article

14 techniques to provide good phone customer service

What makes a good customer service call? Read on for our best phone customer service tips.

By Hannah Wren, Content Marketing Associate

Published August 5, 2016
Last updated January 26, 2021

Even in the age of texts, DMs, and embedded messaging, customers still want the option to contact customer service over the phone. In fact, over 90 percent of organizations surveyed in our Customer Experience Champion report provide phone support.

Customers increasingly prefer to interact with businesses over emerging channels like messaging and chat, yet they often want to hear a human voice for higher-stakes problems.

Over 90 percent of organizations surveyed in our Customer Experience Champion report provide customer service over the phone.

To increase customer satisfaction over the phone and sharpen your customer service phone skills, follow these best practices.

What makes a good customer service call?

There are three key components to a good customer service call, according to Josefina Madrigal, a phone support guru and call center advocate at True Link, a fintech company offering financial support to vulnerable seniors, people with special needs, and those recovering from addiction.

  1. The agent understands the problem
  2. "A good customer service call starts with understanding the problem," said Madrigal. This requires the agent to use active listening skills and have customer context handy, so they can pull up relevant information quickly and understand the full story.

  3. The agent can resolve the customer's issue quickly
  4. "If a call is under 5 minutes, that’s a good indicator that you were able to help the customer quickly,” said Madrigal. In fact, 60 percent of customers surveyed in our Customer Experience Trends Report said that speed was the most important factor of good customer service.

  5. The customer is happy at the end of the call
  6. Following up a customer service call with a satisfaction survey is one way to determine if a customer was pleased with the call. But if a customer doesn't reach out again with the same issue, that usually means they were happy with your support too, according to Madrigal.

14 ways to make your customers happy over the phone

  1. Arm agents with context
  2. Bring in other channels
  3. Avoid silos
  4. Become data-centric
  5. Invest in quality call center technology
  6. Active listening
  7. Communicate hold time
  8. Mirror your customer’s tone
  9. Smile
  10. Reflect and validate
  11. Acknowledge
  12. Be patient
  13. Prepare an escalation plan
  14. Take notes
  15. Take breaks

There are two levels to good phone customer service. Your agents have to interact with customers directly, and the company has to provide the right tools and technology to equip the customer support team to do their job well. Success requires taking a few key steps at both levels.

An effective phone support strategy has to be top-down. Every company that wants to offer better phone customer service should start with these first five tips.

1. Put context at your agents' fingertips

Having customer context handy is a key component to a good customer service call, according to Madrigal.

“Having context like a customer's name, email, and account type help me solve the problem faster. That way, I don’t have to search for their information and toggle between different tools," said Madrigal.

“Having context like a customer's name, email, and account type help me solve the problem faster. That way, I don’t have to search for their information and toggle between different tools."

But your agents aren't magicians and can't pull your customer's information out of a hat. They need call center software that surfaces customer details automatically, such as:

  • Products and order history
  • Email address, in case the agent needs to send a receipt or other email confirmation
  • Support history, so the agent can reference previous issues for a better-personalized call.
  • If an unknown caller is an existing customer. Calls from previously-unknown numbers might turn out to be from customers you already have a record with. When agents can check if this customer already has another user record in your system (e.g. from a ticket created via email), they can merge the phone and email-based user records. As a result, the user's tickets are in one place, and agents can attribute future calls to them.

Take it from 99designs, who uses Zendesk's call center software. "Just based on a caller ID, an agent knows exactly who the client is and can pull up what they’re using our site for," said Zach Kulas, Director of Global Support at 99designs. "Agents can help the client find exactly what they’re looking for without asking, ‘What’s your email address so I can search our admin tool for you?’”

2. Give agents the ability to bring in other channels when they need to

When agents are on the phone, they can find themselves in situations where they have to switch channels. For example, if a customer requests an email receipt or an SMS confirmation.

In fact, according to our research with ESG, 76 percent of Champions (high performing customer service teams) say service and support agents have the ability to toggle customer support channels seamlessly, 4x the rate of Starters (those at risk of falling behind).

When agents can toggle between channels when engaging with customers, it creates a more seamless experience for everyone.

3. Connect your phone system with other channels across the business

Customer service Champions also offer a range of channels, beyond email and the phone. According to research by Zendesk and ESG, they offer an average of two more channels than Starters.

But when call centers operate in silos, it creates an inconvenient customer experience that forces customers to repeat themselves, wait on hold, and be bounced between departments. It also slows down agents' workflow.

Take Harry's. In addition to phone support (which comprises 50 percent of its ticket volume ), Harry's offers email, live chat, and social media support, and is constantly exploring how to segment its channel mix to meet customer needs.

The reason a customer contacts Harry’s is paramount to the customer service team and company at large. Every ticket, regardless of channel, goes into a single, connected system and is tagged with a root cause. This enables Harry's customer service team to prioritize tickets based on the root cause and ensures every ticket is routed to the right agent for the task.

These gains in productivity allowed the team to double down on phone support. In just a year, the team reduced abandonment rate by over 50 percent and is answering 80 percent of all calls in 60 seconds or less—meeting their SLA times. As Katie Rogers, Senior Director of Customer Experience at Harry's, said, “We’re really making sure we have people in the right place at the right time, and that our customers are reaching a person as quickly as possible to get their questions answered.”

When you're able to connect all your support information under a single, connective layer of tissue, it also makes it easier for agents to work with other teams across the business. For example, Rogers’ team shares the same instance with Harry’s Trust & Safety team, responsible for handling potential fraud, so that they can easily and quickly move tickets between teams.

4. Become data-centric

Succesful phone customer service starts with defining measures of success. Ensure your call center technology makes the following metrics easy to pull and understand:

  • Average handle time
  • Missed and declined calls
  • Transfer rate
  • Abandoned in queue
  • Average Speed of Answer

5. Invest in quality call center technology

Champions invest in quality customer service technology. Nearly three-fifths of Champions expect their organization to increase investment in their customer service tech stack significantly over the next 12-24 months, versus just 9 percent of Starters.

Nearly three-fifths of customer service Champions expect their organization to increase investment in their customer service tech stack.

At the most basic level, you'll need call center technology that ensures optimal voice quality. "Good call center software that’s reliable is critical. You want to make sure you have a good connection so you can help customers faster and be more efficient,” said Madrigal.

If you're using a VoIP provider, follow their recommendations for optimal voice quality. For example, wired connections and headsets tend to provide better voice quality than wifi-connected or Bluetooth-connected headsets.

Contact center as a service (CCaaS) is a cloud-based software solution for company contact centers. By 2022, contact center as a service (CCaaS) software will account for roughly 50 percent of preferred adoption models in contact centers, according to Gartner.

By 2022, contact center as a service (CCaaS) software will account for roughly 50 percent of preferred adoption models in contact centers.

Here are a few reasons that companies are moving away from traditional contact centers to CCaaS:

  • It’s cost-effective
  • It offers multi-channel communication
  • It makes customer context easy to access
  • It provides insightful reports and analytics
  • It enables agents to work from home, or anywhere in the world, without having to maintain your own data center
  • It's easy to get up and running and integrates with your existing business systems, so you can spend time helping your customers rather than administering a system

Once you choose the right call center software, it's all about the soft skills. "When you have good call center software, it's easy for agents to learn the tech part, and then once you have that down, it’s all about using your people skills," said Madrigal.

"When you have good call center software, it's easy for agents to learn the tech part, and then once you have that down, it’s all about using your people skills."

Here are tips that focus on the people side of interacting with customers over the phone.

5. Use active listening

“Listening to customers to try to get to the root of the problem is one of the most important call center skills," said Madrigal. “I listen to the customer and what they need help with and then repeat what they said to confirm that I understand what they need help with."

"Listening to customers to try to get to the root of the problem is one of the most important call center skills."

After the customer has given you their story, repeat it back to them to make sure you’ve understood it correctly. If your connection is poor, you may want to ask the customer to spell out critical information (better than asking them to repeat it multiple times).

6. Communicate hold time

Before you put someone on hold (to look something up or ask a question, for example), get confirmation that it’s OK to do so.

General rule: don’t leave a customer on hold for more than 2 minutes without checking back, even if it’s to say it may take longer.

If you know it will be an extended hold, tell them ahead of time. Offer to call back, if that’s preferable, or consider giving them the option to hang up and continue the conversation in a ticket if waiting will be inconvenient for them.

7. Mirror your customer’s tone

Try to match the customer's tone and emotion. Mirroring doesn’t mean to yell if a customer is yelling at you. However, an initial increase in volume or intensity might help the interaction at the start. Then it’s important to quickly bring the intensity down. Be yourself, and mirror in the best way you can to create quick rapport.

Madrigal recommends trying to sound enthusiastic, but not in a way that doesn't feel authentic. "Just try not to use a monotone voice," she said.

8. Smile, literally

A smile can translate through the phone, causing your voice to sound friendly and warm. A study out of the University of Portsmouth found that a smile is, in fact, something that you can hear, and that a good set of ears can pick up on different kinds of smiles.

But be careful not to “smile” at an irate customer. Wait until the time is right.

9. Reflect and validate

When a customer is upset or frustrated, they might not be able to take in what you say—even when it’s the right answer.

First, listen to help them calm down.

After saying all they need to say, they’re more likely to be receptive to hearing the solution you offer—even when it’s not what they’d like to hear.

How do you deal with angry customers on the phone?

Reflecting and validating is a key step for interacting with angry customers over the phone. “When I'm dealing with an angry customer, I listen to them, let them vent, and give them the floor to say what they need to say. Then, I validate why they’re frustrated," said Madrigal. "Validating why they’re frustrated helps calm them down."

10. Acknowledge the problem

Tell customers you understand their problem and the reason for their call. Make sure they feel heard.

This demonstrates that you’re taking ownership of the issue that has caused the customer an inconvenience or frustration.

11. Be patient

Give the customer the time they need when asking them to provide you with more information.

Being patient is also useful when a customer is calling to complain. Allow them to get their story out; interrupting will only make them more upset.

As Madrigal pointed out, it's important to let customers vent if they need to, even if you understand the issue right away. People often need to finish expressing themselves before they're ready to proceed.

12. Prepare an escalation plan

Know who you can escalate calls to if the caller asks to speak to a manager.

If you’re a support manager, expect that you’ll need to do this sometimes, and at inopportune times. If no manager is available, apologize and escalate the ticket to a superior with a summary of the issue.

Most importantly, don't take it personally if the customer wishes to speak to a manager.

13. Take notes as you go

Note-taking will help you capture the details of the customer’s issue and decrease the amount of time you spend wrapping-up after the call.

With the right call center software, agents can share notes with each other.

14. Take breaks to prevent burn out

Call center agents can experience burn out. But there are things agents and their managers can do to keep themselves and their teams motivated.

To help reduce burnout, Madrigal takes breaks in between calls. She said this is especially important after speaking with an angry customer: "If you come out of a heated call, make sure you take time to gather yourself and then go back when you’re ready."

"If you come out of a heated call, make sure you take time to gather yourself and then go back when you’re ready."

How to answer customer service calls: dos and don'ts

To summarize some of the tips we discussed, here are call center dos and don'ts:

Dos

  • Use all the context at your fingertips
  • Resolve customers’ issues fully the first time they call
  • Listen
  • Ask the customer how to pronounce their name if you're unsure
  • Offer to schedule a call back if the customer will have to wait on hold
  • Take breaks during the day
  • Validate the customer's feelings
  • Have an escalation plan
  • Be patient

Don'ts

  • Take things angry customers say personally
  • Interrupt the customer when they're venting about an issue
  • Turn agents into robots by making them stick to a strict script
  • Make customers talk to multiple agents to get an answer
  • Make it hard to reach an agent
  • Prioritize call time over finding the best answer

Learn how 8 companies deliver exceptional customer experience at scale