Business Phone Etiquette: 7 Ways to Make or Break the Customer Experience

Companies put a lot of time, money, and thought into creating a great customer experience, both online and in person. But what about on the phone? Phone calls are the primary — if not the only — human interaction that customers have with many companies. So, what business owners and their employees say, and how they say it, can make or break the brand experience.

A smiling woman talking on an office telephone.
Developing a business phone etiquette plan will help build a strong brand.

Simply put: If your team doesn't have proper business phone etiquette, it won't matter to callers that your website is awesome or that your marketing is engaging.

How do you ensure that all customer communication is professional and on-brand? Develop business phone etiquette policies that address the following:

1. How Employees Identify Themselves

The way an employee answers the phone sets the tone of the conversation and should clearly reflect the brand image you want to project. Are you going for casual and friendly, or professional and efficient? Should employees give their first names or their full names and titles? Do they also need to identify the company and perhaps the department?

The answers to these questions will depend on your brand. If you want to seem hip and approachable, something as simple as "Hi, I'm Bill. How can I make your day better?" might suffice. For a more professional tone, a formal and informative intro might be more appropriate.

2. Vocabulary Selection

Word choice also depends on the brand. Is slang acceptable? Where should employees fall on the scale between friendly and formal? Is it OK to use customers' first names, or are Mr. and Ms. more appropriate salutations?

Also, consider the audience and what vocabulary they might not understand. Are there internal terms or technical jargon that might confuse or bore customers? If so, consider providing examples of customer-friendly ways to discuss common technical topics.

3. Environment

If you're running a startup tech company or managing a team of stockbrokers, loud background noise might suggest that exciting or innovative things are happening behind the scenes. For most business calls, however, too much noise just makes it hard to hear. And if the conversation concerns sensitive information, such as financial or health data, background noise might suggest the call isn't as private as the customer would like.

What noise levels are appropriate when your employees take calls? When should they step into a private office or conference room? If you've embraced the virtual enterprise and remote workers, of if your employees take business calls while on the go, what noise level or privacy concerns should they consider before answering?

4. Putting Customers on Hold

No customer likes to be kept waiting, but most don't mind a brief hold if they understand why, if they agree to it, and if they believe your team cares about resolving their problems quickly. Being told to "please hold" without an explanation doesn't send that message, nor does leaving a customer on hold for too long.

Spell out what employees should say before putting a customer on hold and when it's OK to do so. For example, is it okay to answer call waiting with a customer on the phone? Also address how long to let someone wait. Should employees come back on the line at certain intervals, if only to let customers know they're still working on it? If they know a task will take more than a few minutes, should they offer a call-back instead?

5. Transferring Calls

The words "I'll need to transfer you" fill many callers with instant dread. They've been scarred by previous transfer experiences, where they were either disconnected or directed to the wrong person ... again, again, and again.

A virtual receptionist can help direct customers to the right individual or department, but employees may still receive questions or requests they're unable to address. What policies can you put in place to ensure callers don't get caught in a transfer loop? For example, should employees put customers on hold and talk to their colleagues before transferring calls to them? Do you have (or can you create) a company directory they can consult that spells out exactly which calls should be directed to which person or department?

6. Handling Inappropriate Comments

It's unfortunate but true: Some customers are ... challenging. There are those who will, on occasion, make inappropriate comments that catch your team off guard. By preparing them to respond well, you can ensure they handle these situations with grace and respect.

Spell out how they should handle challenging calls. What should they say when callers resort to yelling, cursing, or even name-calling? Who should they call on for backup?

Think about typical calls from the customer's point of view, and consider whether there are other critical moments where better business phone etiquette could lead to a better brand experience. If you have a smart, talented team, it knows how to talk to customers, so you don't have to script every interaction. However, getting everyone on the same page goes a long way for brand consistency and a great customer experience.

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