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’.