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Find tips and tricks to improve your customer service skills! Our blog is updated by veteran Answering Service operators and focuses on improving telephone customer service across the board. Read up on the techniques our staff uses to handle our clients' customer calls with care, compassion, and empathy.

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Answering Services: Say This, Not That

While working my way through the world for several years by answering other people’s phone lines the hardest thing to learn was what not to say.

Noises we take for granted as just this thing we do are not welcome in the call center environment. I used the word “noises” on purpose. For example:


And so on. We need to avoid using connecting noises (please consult an actual linguist for the official terminology)—those little blips that happen when we’re trying to think of what to say next. Trying to get out of the “Um” habit is harder than trying to pin a gnat to a wall with a safety pin.

(If you’ve never tried to pin a gnat to a wall with a safety pin, then please take my word for it: it’s really hard.)

So how do you break the um-habit? Well, you really don’t. Even the best operators will slip a connecting sound into a conversation. It may only be one or two a day, but they’ll happen. The best you can do is reduce the number of vocal pauses you make during your calls.

You do this by paying attention to what you’re saying. Instead of saying “uh huh” in response to a caller giving you their phone number, try “thank you.” If you want to give the “I’m listening” prompt during conversation, I’ve found that “alright” in place of “mmhm” works in most situations.

This is why I’m always confused when people say a monkey could work a call center job. Continual “ooks” in the conversation would tank their QA ratings.

Choose your words carefully

So apart from those weird sounds we humans naturally make when we can’t think of the word we want to use like office or banana, what else do we need to avoid?

Placating words like “just” as in “I just want to make sure…” actually do more harm than good. Removing just from your vocabulary helps you sound more confident. See also: only (“I only need your phone number…”). These words make you sound unsure. Deleting them from your repertoire helps you stay in control of your calls.

Other no-no words depend on your call center environment. I’ve worked in places where “okay” held a place of honor on the list of verboten words, right next to: “yep,” “yeah,” and “nope.”

I’ve also worked in places where it was perfectly okay to say, “okay!”

So the best thing to do to is ask your supervisor. A good general rule of thumb: avoid slang altogether, but what some places consider slang, others don’t (see: okay). Avoid the already mentioned, “yep” and its variants. Also dump: nah, s’up?, and come at me bro.

Lastly, I really don’t think it needs to be said, but I’m going to type it anyway: never, ever, ever, ever swear at a caller. I don’t care what they call you, don’t do it. Not even “poot.” Jus t don’t do it. Failure to take this advice could result in a pink slip.

I’m just sayin’.
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Great Tips for Handling Difficult Calls

Here’s a (completely scientific) fact for you: Happy Operators Take Better Calls. Content answering service operators mean happier customers, and better customer service. This is something of a no-brainer for call-center veterans. We know the drill, but sometimes…

All it takes is one phone call

Every operator in every in-bound call-center has a story to tell about That One Call. Sometimes it’s silly and leaves us giggling, but other times it’s the call that sends us home in tears. It ruined our entire day.  It’s the call we try to let go of so we can focus on other calls, but it sits in the back of our head like a tumor.

I can empathize with that. Been there, took that call, got the t-shirt, etc.

I’m not here to vent though. If you’re a call-center operator, you know. But how do you deal with That One Call in a way that won’t bring down the rest of your day?

Here’s a few things to keep in mind:

#1. Remember: What you do is important.

We are not doctors, nurses, lawyers, or engineers. We ensure that doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers, funeral homes, HVAC technicians, and electricians (I can go on, but you get the idea) can do their jobs without being overwhelmed. After hours, during the weekend, when the house floods or someone comes down with the flu, we are the people who take those calls.

We are the reason callers get to talk to a real person instead of a machine. The value of that cannot be overstated. Talking to another empathetic and understanding human being, who can make sure their information gets to the right person; helps alleviate whatever crisis is going on in our callers’ lives. We can’t snap our fingers and fix things, but we can put solutions into motion.

On the flip side: we are the reason our clients can have time to themselves. Many calls don’t involve emergencies at all. Someone needs to make an appointment the next day. Others are just checking in and don’t require a call back as soon as possible. We take non-urgent messages, send them along, and allow our clients to get back to their callers on their own time (say, after dinner). Again, the unspoken value is immeasurable.

What you do matters. Don’t let anyone ever convince you otherwise.

#2. People are people

The best thing to remember is that your caller is a person. Even if they’re yelling, or swearing, or just cranky because the office is closed and they didn’t manage to call in time, they’re just a person. Right now, they’re a person with a problem. Chances are good that they’re not angry at you (cold comfort in the heat of the moment, I know). Part of the job no one ever likes to mention is being a front line target. It happens. What to do:

Take a deep breath.

Apologize and take ownership of the issue (even if it’s not your fault).

More deep breaths.

Take a message. You will probably have to apologize again.


Answer the next call.

#3. Remember to take care of you

Putting a bad call out of your mind is easier said than done. Leaving your emotions at the door (which isn’t encouraged) is even harder (especially since I don’t encourage it). You can’t take care of your callers if you can’t take care of yourself.

Easier said than done when tied to a desk by the headset, but here are some ideas:

1.       Take your headset off during downtimes: Reduces pressure on your ears and probably helps keep headaches at bay.

2.       Stand up: You don’t have to walk away from your desk, but just standing up during a lull in call volume will help get blood flowing again, which can help you feel better.

3.       Take your breaks: Getting up and walking away, even if you just go to the bathroom, puts distance between you and a bad call.

4.       Drink lots of water: Staying hydrated has a lot of benefits, including keeping your energy level up.

5.       Remember that sometimes things really are out of your hands:  You can’t fix everything, even if the caller wants you to and it’s okay to admit that—but if you do, assure the caller that you will be contacting someone who can fix their problem. That’s usually all any caller wants: to know that someone understands their needs and that someone will be fixing whatever the issue is.

When you get home after work, take a long shower, drink some tea, read a book, watch your favorite show, go out with friends—do whatever it is you enjoy doing. Vent to your cat (or dog, bird, lizard, wall, etc) if you need to, but try not to dwell. The more you ruminate on a bad experience, the more upset you will get.

Enjoy your time off. Take care of you. Don’t let That One Call win. 
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What is Active Listening?

What is Active Listening?

Most guides to Active Listening deal with in-person settings: councilors and face-to-face business transactions, for example. Since most of our interpersonal communication is done over the phone, answering service/call center employees require a slightly modified set of Active Listening skills.

In the context of a phone call, Active Listening means more than just hearing the words your callers say. It’s a skill just like riding a bike—and like riding a bike, it can be learned. Better yet, it can be learned with far fewer scrapped knees.

Picking out which bits of information are important during a call is a learned skill that you can only develop by taking calls. Those who say anyone could do this job don’t actually know what it entails.

Tone is (almost) Everything

Not being able to see our callers’ body language puts us at a huge disadvantage. We can’t see crossed arms, furrowed brows, or cranky frowns: all signs that the person is annoyed. But we can hear it. Sighing, grumbling, and short, clipped answers are all very easy to spot and point to an irritated caller. Picking up on little signs can help you modulate your own tone to make the call go more smoothly.

For example, answering a funeral home line is sort of like riding an emotional merry-go-round. The callers could be (and usually are) in a good mood. They’re making plans but nothing terrible has happened yet. On the other hand, they could be distraught because you’re talking to them on the worst day of their life. Someone they love has just passed away and you’re the first point of contact for the funeral home.

Don’t panic.

How do you tell the difference, other than the obvious? Yes, the caller will tell you why they’re calling…eventually. A good operator who’s listening to the caller’s tone will have an idea from the very start and can modulate their own voice to match the caller and keep control of the call.

Very important side note: don’t assume. The caller’s tone will give you a good idea of where the call is going to go, but not always. A distraught caller could be someone who just lost a loved one, or they could have just learned that their loved one, though not deceased, is not expected to live very long. Some have just lost a beloved family pet. Equally devastating, but wildly different scenarios.

Background Noises

This is a fairly straight forward point, but listening to sounds beyond the caller’s words is an extremely helpful skill. Like Sherlock, you’ll pick up useful bits of information that will inform how you handle the call. As always, never assume (and don’t bring up the sounds you hear to the caller!) but listen for things like:

v  Muted conversations 

v  Traffic

v  Someone else in the room trying to get the callers attention

Each of these examples mean your caller is potentially distracted. Muted crowded conversations indicate the caller could be in a restaurant, or about to step into a company wide meeting. Not only are they distracted by the people around them, they may only have a limited amount of time to talk. Respect that, but if they decide to leave a message, make sure you’re extra careful about confirming their information.

(Side note: picking out telemarketer/solicitation calls is super easy once you’re used to them. I know before you even ask me if the, “Is the owner or business manager available?” question. I know you’re in a call center. I know what a call center sounds like. You can’t hide it, but most of the time I will still take a message if you leave one, because that’s my job!)

Confirm, Confirm, Confirm

This can’t be stated enough. Answering services, as the name might imply, provide a service. We take messages and dispatch those messages according to the client’s instructions. Our messages have to complete, accurate, and typo-free. How do you do that without prolonging the call and annoying the caller? Didn’t you hear them say their name was Smith?

What? Smith? Spelled S-M-I-T-H?

NO!  SMITH spelled S-M-I-T-T!

And this is where things unravel a bit. Don’t let that happen. I like to use what I think of as “placating phrases.” Quick little assurances that yes, I’m listening, and I want to make sure I’ve got what they’re telling me. These include (but are by no means limited to…):

Thank you. Let me make sure I have that correct. Do you spell your first name…?

 I want to make sure I have your phone number correct. Is it…?

Let me repeat back what I heard to make sure I have it right…

I want to make sure I have this right. You said you’re calling for…

Your callers won’t notice these little phrases much on a conscious level, but they serve to reassure your caller that you’re paying attention. Confirmation is part of the listening process and smoothly inserting your confirmation phrases into the conversation will actually reduce the amount of time you spend on a call. Your caller will hang up confident that you’ve got their information correct and that the message is in good hands.

So remember: pay attention and engage your caller. Building those skills will lead to better call times, better messages, and happier (or at least more content) callers. 
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What is an Answering Service?

Search “Answering Service” in Google. After skipping through half a dozen ads, you’ll find links to various services offering “Virtual Receptionists” and “Live Call Answering Service” but what, exactly, does that mean?

An Answering Service is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. We’re an inbound (primarily) call center that picks up the calls businesses would otherwise miss for a variety of reasons: it’s after hours, the office has too many calls coming in, there’s trouble with the phone lines, the receptionist needed just five minutes to run to the bathroom, and so on.

We answer your phones when you can’t, for whatever reason. We’re here twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty five days a year. Our operators are 100% real people (we’ve had them tested. Don’t worry.) And being distinctly human - compassionate, caring, and professional on the phone with our callers is a core value of our company.

So do you need an answering service? Most businesses don’t know they do, but consider this:

-      Do you take multiple calls during the day and are you missing some due to the high volume? No-Answer-Transfer is a simple, cost-effective way to make sure you customers are taken care of in a timely manner.

-      Does your office close down for lunch?Instead of having your customers or patients talk to an emotionless answering machine voice, they can talk to a live person who can answer their questions and deliver a message.

-      Does your office or business offer after-hours emergency services? Any service such as HVAC, nursing, plumbing, ambulance transfer, doctors, funeral directors, technical support, and more. The world doesn’t stop just because the clock hits 5. Let your customers know they can reach you at any time.

-      Automated calling trees make for frustrated callers. Alright, that wasn’t a question, but getting stuck in the phone tree is considered a customer service nightmare. Avoid that by sending your callers directly to a live person!

If any of these apply to you and your business, consider hiring an answering service. Give your customers the reassurance that comes with talking to a live operator. We provide that small extra step in customer service: your customers know right away that their concerns are being heard, and that their problems will be solved. 
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